Big polluters ignore Arctic tipping point

September 14, 2012
This year’s melt 'didn’t just touch the record, it really drove right through it'.

After melting past the previous record minimum in late August, Arctic sea ice cap has continued its rapid decline.

By September 5, the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) said the ice cap had fallen below 4 million square kilometres ― “a 45% reduction in the area of the Arctic covered by sea ice” since the 1980s and ’90s.

This year’s melt “didn’t just touch the record, it really drove right through it”, the NSIDC’s Ted Scambos told US National Public Radio on September 12.

Yet Arctic sea ice extent measurements don’t give a full picture of the Arctic crisis. Most of the Arctic ice lies below the water and its decline has been gaining pace.

The US Polar Science Center says the ice cap volume halved in the 25 years from 1979 and then halved again in the six years from 2006. That adds up to a 75% fall in Arctic summer ice since records began.

The melt season is drawing to a close, but a growing chorus of scientists now say the Arctic summer ice coverage will disappear altogether within the next few years.

Cambridge University ocean physicist Peter Wadhams told the Scotsman on August 29: “The entire ice cover is now on the point of collapse … It is truly the case that it will be all gone by 2015. The consequences are enormous and represent a huge boost to global warming.”

Other scientists are more reticent, saying that some Arctic summer ice may linger for a decade or two. However, NASA Arctic specialist Jay Zwally told Yale Environment 360 on August 30 that it was important not “to get hung up on specifics and lose track of the big picture, which is that it’s getting worse and it’s going to get [even] worse”.

Zwally said the Arctic ice “had gone through a tipping point” and will not recover. “When it goes below a certain thickness it doesn’t go back under present conditions.”

Along with the annihilation of the region’s fragile ecosystem, scientists say an ice-free Arctic will trigger other climate tipping points.

Chief among these are the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, unpredictable extreme weather in the northern hemisphere and the release of huge amounts of Earth-warming methane gas frozen in Arctic soils and seabeds.

The warnings should spark a change of heart among the world’s governments, but the latest UN climate summit in Bangkok, which closed on September 5, ended without any new commitment to cut emissions.

Even if carried out in full, the existing UN system of voluntary emissions cuts will lead to a 4°C to 6°C average temperature rise this century ― a scary prospect given the huge problems caused today by the 0.8°C of warming since the industrial revolution.

For years, the world’s two biggest polluting countries ― China and the US ― have blamed each other for the UN stalemate. However, Focus on the Global South’s Pablo Solon and Walden Bello said in a September 4 Bangkok Post op-ed that the problem is that “the US and China both want a weaker climate agreement”.

They said: “The climate talk’s stalemate is not the result of a contradiction between the two biggest powers but of a common approach not to be obliged to change their policies of consumption, production and gaining control of natural resources around the world.

“The position of the delegations of the US and China and many other countries reflects more the concerns of their elites than of their people.”

Big oil companies are taking advantage of the big Arctic melt in typical “disaster capitalism” fashion. Shell began drilling the first oil well in the Alaskan Arctic in two decades on September 9 after winning US government approval.

The next day it was forced to halt drilling to move its oil platform out of the path of a 30-mile-long iceberg.

In the Russian Arctic, the state-owned energy company Gasprom has also begun exploratory drilling. Last month, six Greenpeace activists boarded a Gasprom oil rig in the Pechora Sea to call for a drilling ban. Greenpeace said the company was “completely unprepared” for an oil spill.

It said Gasprom’s oil spill response plan “would rely on substandard clean-up methods ― such as shovels and buckets ― that simply do not work in icy conditions”.

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