On Sept. 16, 2012, the Arctic Ice Cap melted to its lowest level on record, shrinking to half its previous size in just 33 years.
So, you ask, why should that concern me?
“We are now in uncharted territory,” says National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) director Mark Serreze. While we’ve long known global warming would first impact the Arctic, “few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur.”
I feel bad for the polar bears, but melting ice thousands of miles away doesn’t affect me.
Actually, it does, in a serious way. Remember the 26,000 heat records broken this year? More than 60 percent of the country gripped by drought? Colorado Springs burning, the U.S. corn crop withering, herds of cattle slaughtered for lack of water? Remember the record Mississippi and Missouri river floods and the Texas drought of 2011? Snowmageddon, the Russian wildfires and Pakistan deluge of 2010?
This extreme weather, scientists say, is likely being triggered by Arctic warming, along with ice and snow loss, that has significantly weakened the jet stream—a high-speed river of wind that circles the Northern Hemisphere.
A warmer Arctic has caused the jet stream to slow and block normal weather patterns. A “stuck” jet stream holds heat waves, storms, and dry spells over the same area for days, weeks, or months, hammering that region with prolonged drought or intense deluge.
Okay, so environmentalists are worried. But I’m more concerned about the economy, jobs, feeding the kids, and paying the mortgage.
Which is exactly why the Arctic matters. Climate change impacts are already costing the world a staggering $1.2 trillion annually, according to a new study commissioned by 20 nations. The United States alone saw $52 billion in unexpected extreme weather damage last year, including heart-wrenching disasters, like the Joplin tornado and Hurricane Irene. This year’s drought could cost $77 billion.
All this extreme weather means higher taxes to fight wildfires and repair storm damage. It raises the cost of home insurance, regardless of whether you’ve filed a claim: insurance companies spread risk among all policyholders. In flood zones, tornado and hurricane prone areas, properties are becoming uninsurable. Food costs are skyrocketing, with crop failures becoming commonplace. Utility bills are soaring, especially for air conditioning. These are real climate change costs that could break already strapped American families.
The bad news: extreme weather could get worse, because the Arctic is still warming. Scientists are especially alarmed at how “increasingly vulnerable” the ice is now, says NSIDC scientist Walt Meier. “Parts of the Arctic have become like a giant slushy.” The remaining thin ice could melt rapidly.
Do we know when the rest will melt?
No. But ice scientist Peter Wadhams, who has studied the Arctic since the 1970s, believes it could be gone by summer 2015. “The final collapse … is now happening,” Wadhams says, and its implications are “terrible.”
Terrible? What kind of terrible.
The white ice cap reflected 90 percent of solar heat back into space, acting as the world’s air conditioner. In future, the dark blue Arctic Ocean will absorb 90 percent of the sun’s summer heat—adding to global warming. Peter Wadhams calculates that losing the Arctic ice throughout the summer could have a warming effect “equivalent of about 20 years of additional CO2 being added by man.”
Eventually the tundra permafrost and methane hydrates in the Arctic sea floor will melt, releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide and “huge quantities of trapped methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas,” says Wadhams.
What can we do?
Legitimate scientists are emphatic: We must cut greenhouse gas emissions now, while preparing for severe chaotic weather. But that’s not happening. Mitt Romney jokes about climate change while other Republicans call it a hoax. Obama sees it as “a threat to our children’s future,” but Democrats dither. In fact, the media gave three times more TV coverage to candidate Paul Ryan’s physical fitness workout than the Arctic meltdown.
Our national response, “has not been alarm, or panic, or a sense of emergency,” says author Bill McKibben. “It has been, ‘Let’s go up there and drill for oil.’”
Seriously, what do we do?
Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve been following the science for more than a decade, and the truth is: our scientists got it wrong. Climate change impacts—especially the Arctic meltdown and extreme weather—are arriving far quicker, with greater ferocity than anyone expected.
We have entered a full-fledged planetary emergency. Our response—or lack of one—will likely determine your fate, the fate of your family, community, and civilization.
Blue Ridge Press editor Glenn Scherer lives in Montpelier, Vt. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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