[MARINE_BIOLOGY_INTERNATIONAL] Melting Arctic's wicked impacts


Melting Arctic's wicked impacts

Herald Tribune

Sunday, July 15, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

When Dorothy doused the Wicked Witch with a bucketful of water, the green-faced villain screamed at she began to shrink into a puddle: "I'm melting, melting ..."

In Greenland and throughout the Arctic, glaciers and sea ice are melting at accelerated rates. The 200-gigaton loss of the ice sheet has occurred at a fourfold increase during the past decade; since satellite monitoring began in 1979, summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has shrunk by 12 percent a decade, The Economist magazine recently reported.

Among the anticipated results: Most climate models predict the Arctic Ocean could be free of ice during summer by the end of the century; recently updated models suggest this historic change could occur by 2037 or sooner.

The Economist -- a pro-market, conservative-leaning publication based in England -- devoted a recent cover and special report to these topics: "The vanishing north: What the melting of the Arctic means for trade, energy and the environment."

Then, last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its 2011 State of the Climate report.

Last year, the average temperature for the contiguous United States was 1 degree above the 20th century average, making it the 23rd warmest year on record, according to NOAA.

"On a global scale, La Niña events helped keep the average global temperature below recent trends," the report said. But 2011 also tied with 1997 for the 11th warmest year on record. Even though it was the second coolest year of the 21st century to date, last year tied with the second warmest year of the 20th century.

This marked the 35th consecutive year, since 1976, that the yearly global temperature was above average. The warmest years on record were 2010 and 2005.

Arctic sea ice was below average for all of 2011, and has been since June 2000, according to NOAA's report.

Last year, both the maximum ice "extent" (5.6 million square miles on March 7) and the minimum extent (1.6 million square miles on Sept. 9) were the second smallest since 1979.

The warming trends continue, as Americans know. The January-June period was the warmest first half of any year on record for the contiguous U.S., according to the latest NOAA reports. The national temperature 4.5 degrees above the 20th century average.

Not surprisingly, so far this year, sea ice in the Northern Hemisphere has been below average; it has been above average in the Southern Hemisphere.

(Scientists believe there are several reasons for the melting in the North: 1. In Greenland and other places in the Arctic, above-average temperatures have been even higher than they have been worldwide. 2. The melting causes a catalytic warming effect. When snow and ice melt, they're replaced by darker water or land, causing the Arctic surface to absorb more heat. 3. Warming sea water and/or a shift in Atlantic currents.)

It is tempting to treat these developments as out of sight and out of mind, and focus on more intriguing matters -- such as who will replace Steven Tyler on "American Idol."

But they could have both local and global impacts. Melting glaciers will raise sea levels; coastal areas, including the Florida peninsula, will not be immune. And, in the nearer term, the changing conditions are likely to result in a loss of habitats for both wildlife and Arctic indigenous peoples.

Skeptics and deniers will continue to challenge the evidence that the Earth is warming and human activities -- such as the production of greenhouse emissions -- contribute to that climate change. But they will be increasingly hard-pressed to explain why ice is melting in the absence of substantial warming.

As The Economist reported, some scientists believe the Earth is near a tipping point, at which the climate could change fundamentally -- in this case from an Artic Ocean frozen in winter and filled with sea ice in summer, to a navigable waterway open to exploration and exploitation.

In a column last July, I noted that liberal environmentalists aren't the only ones cognizant of the magnitude of change. During a speech last year to the Active in the Arctic Seminar, Navy Adm. Gary Roughead stated:

"There is a phenomenal event taking place on the planet today. And that is what I call the opening of the Fifth Ocean; that's the Arctic Ocean. We haven't had an ocean open on this planet since the end of the Ice Age. So, if this is not a significant change that requires new -- and I would submit, brave -- thinking on the topic, I don't know what other sort of physical event could produce that."

The opening of the Arctic Ocean will pose challenges to the Navy; military planning for securing the ocean and Northwest Passage is already under way. There is potential for carbon-fuel extraction on a massive scale -- ironic, in light of the contribution of fossil-fuel burning to warming. What's more, there are likely to be disputes over claims to land, water and resources -- a reason for the United States to approve the Law of the Sea Treaty.

Yet, for all of the possibilities for historic changes, where is the new, brave thinking in the national election campaigns?

As the Wicked Witch learned, ignoring the cause of melting has serious consequences.

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