Rotten Sea Ice, “The Age of Consequences” and Our Planetary Emergency

“The scientific community realizes that we have a planetary emergency. It’s hard for the public to recognize this because they stick their head out the window and don’t see that much going on.” — NASA Scientist James Hansen.


Rotten Ice

So much has happened, so much keeps happening, that it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of all the accumulating impacts posed by human caused climate change.

Much focus has been placed upon the rapid melt of Arctic sea ice this year. And this visible sign of the damage caused by human greenhouse gas emissions is as good a place to plant our global warning flags as any. Overall losses for this year have been vast and dramatic, averaging at around 700,000 square kilometers between all the agencies reporting sea ice extent and area.

But even this amazing loss does not, entirely, put into context the current condition of Arctic sea ice. David Barber, a veteran Arctic researcher, recently characterized the state of Arctic sea ice by calling it ‘rotten.’ In Barber’s parlance, ‘rotten’ ice means ice flows that are broken and filled with holes or vast expanses of ice speckled with melt ponds that inevitably bore on down through the surface. Thin, fragile ice vulnerable to the action of waves and weather.

And this year, Barber is noting that the ice is rotten almost all the way to the North Pole.

“The multi-year ice, what’s left of it, is so heavily decayed that it’s really no longer a barrier to transportation,” Barber says, describing how melt ponds leave much of the ice looking like Swiss cheese.

“You could have taken a ship right across the North Pole this year,” he concludes.

Barber notes that we are heading to a seasonally ice free Arctic by around 2020, plus or minus five years. Barber goes on to point out that the last time the Arctic was seasonally ice free was millions of years ago and that the current pace of melt is unprecedented in the geological record.

“Now we are getting there in tens of years, not tens of thousands of years,” he says. “And we don’t know how the Earth is going to respond because we have never seen such a rapid change before.”

“The Age of Consequences”

But we are already starting to see Earth’s response. All over the globe, fires and droughts are multiplying, impacts to crops are intensifying, storms are growing stronger, more violent, damage from weather disasters is hitting new records. And the weather patterns themselves are changing.

This year, the jet stream has shifted into a new phase, nearly permanent for the past six months, in which warm air is dredged up out of the sub-tropics and dumped square over the vast ice sheets of Greenland. The result was the most rapid melt ever on record for this great frozen land. The same deviant jet resulted in the worst drought in the US in the last 55 years, a drought that continues to expand gobbling up more farmland. Hope for respite from this drought continues to diminish as the west and heartland revert to conditions of heating and drying.

As amateur Arctic observer and sea ice blogger Neven saliently noted in his devastating assessment of Arctic sea ice loss for 2012:

“But my bubble has burst. I’m already watching past the minimum. As the melting season ends, it feels as if things are only beginning. The age of consequences.”

Neven is right and not just for Arctic sea ice. We have entered the age of consequences in which worsening and far-range impacts from climate change will appear and intensify around the globe. And, given the speed and violence of the human forcing, the pace of change shows potential to exceed anything seen in the geological record.

Our Planetary Emergency

A few weeks ago, NASA scientist James Hansen began calling the current climate state a planetary emergency. This fact, now ever more visible, should be a clarion call to action. And the ever more seeming responsible and salient environmentalists are calling for cuts and curtailments to world carbon emissions.

The time for delay has long past and, even if we respond now, we should be hard put to it, very hard put to it, indeed, to push through this vast and growing crisis. We are likely currently on a very fast track toward a melting Greenland and West Antarctica. And under business as usual carbon emissions, nearly 1,000 ppm CO2 appears likely by the end of this century. Simply put, a human civilization of any rough allegory to our own cannot exist in such a world.

To call the current situation an emergency is a simple statement of fact. It is responsible to identify this emergency and to urgently call for response. It is time to turn away from the voices who have for so long been wrong and to listen instead to those who have an actual window on what is happening. On what is likely to happen. And on what will surely happen if we don’t work to curtail emissions now.

”Our society, our civilization and how we live our lives – it’s all predicated on a stable climate system,” says Barber, who notes that the planet has undergone abrupt climate change in the past and could do so again.

“The take-home message for people is we are running an experiment with Earth’s climate system,” says Barber.

And the experiment is now starting to go haywire.



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