David Suzuki: The threat of melting Arctic ice

Arctic sea ice has already melted to a record low this year, in thickness and extent. And summer’s not over yet. According to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, record melt has occurred for the past six years. Both the NSIDC and the European Space Agency say ice is thinning at a rate 50 percent faster than scientists predicted, mainly because of global warming, and that summer Arctic ice could soon disappear altogether.

The implications for global climate and weather, and for animals and people in the North, are enormous. One would think the urgency of this development would draw a swift and collaborative response from government, industry, media, and the public. Instead, news media have downplayed the issue, the only mention made of climate change at the recent Republican National Convention was to mock the science, and many government and industry leaders are rubbing their hands in glee at the thought of oil and gas extraction opportunities and shipping routes that will open up as the ice disappears.

We just don’t get it. As ice melts, more of the sun’s energy, which would normally be reflected back by the ice, is absorbed by the dark water, speeding up global climate change and warming the oceans. The Arctic is now heating at almost twice the rate as the rest of Earth. There’s also the danger that methane could be released as ice and permafrost melt. It’s a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide, so this would accelerate global warming even further. Scientists believe methane may also be uncovered by the warming Antarctic.

The Arctic ice cap also helps regulate weather, affecting ocean currents and atmospheric circulation. “This ice has been an important factor in determining the climate and weather conditions under which modern civilization has evolved,” NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told Associated Press. A study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters concludes that melting Arctic ice could lead to more extreme weather events, including drought, floods, heat waves, and cold spells—especially in Europe and North America.

This not only threatens our future and that of our children and grandchildren; it could also have tremendous negative economic impacts. Because climate change affects agriculture and food supply, energy systems, water availability, and weather conditions, it will be expensive. A study conducted for the Pew Environment Group concludes, “In 2010, the loss of Arctic snow, ice and permafrost is estimated to cost the world US$61 billion to $371 billion in lost climate cooling services. By 2050, the cumulative global cost is projected to range from US$2.4 trillion to $24.1 trillion; and by 2100, the cumulative cost could total between US$4.8 trillion and $91.3 trillion.”

That doesn’t take into account the effects on the animals and plants in the Arctic—including polar bears, whales, seals, and walruses—and the people who depend on them.

What’s the solution? During a recent trip to the North, Prime Minister Stephen Harper confirmed that sovereignty and resource extraction are his government’s priorities for the region. And as Guardian writer George Monbiot points out, companies largely responsible for the climate disaster are scrambling to get as much profit from the situation as they can. Oil companies including Shell and Russia’s Gazprom are taking advantage of the melt to speed up exploratory drilling. Greenpeace activists recently chained themselves to Gazprom’s supply ship in an attempt to stop that company’s activities.

We can’t all chain ourselves to ships, so we have to tell our elected representatives, as well as people in the media and industry, that we expect better than short-term gain for long-term pain. Doing all we can to combat climate change comes with numerous benefits, from reducing pollution and associated health-care costs to strengthening and diversifying the economy by shifting to renewable energy, among other measures.

From year to year, environmental changes are incremental and often barely register in our lives, but from evolutionary or geological perspectives, what is happening is explosive change. Politicians and businesspeople focused on short-term agendas continue to ignore or downplay the hazards. But the more we stall, the worse it will get. The Arctic warnings provide an opportunity to get things right.

For more insights from David Suzuki, please read Everything Under the Sun (Greystone Books/David Suzuki Foundation), by David Suzuki and Ian Hanington, now available in bookstores and online. This article was written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation editorial and communications specialist Ian Hanington. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Comments (11) Add New Comment
Gordon Jenkins
The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly 61 percent of the Earth's fresh water, according to Wikipedia, and "covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice", it has been fairly consistent over the period of Arctic ice melt seasons from year to year.
Doesn't the Antarctic pick up the slack as the Arctic Sea Ice melts?
http://arctic.atmos.uiuc.edu/cryosphere/IMAGES/seaice.anomaly.antarctic.png

In thermodynamics, or non-frost free refrigerators, doesn't extra moisture (atmospheric water vapour) get trapped by the biggest cold sinks available, such as the Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Greenland Ice Sheet?

What is the quantification of human input for this change, especially when there are non-human inputs to consider such as solar irradiation, volcanics, methyl-hydrates in the ocean released during earthquakes, the impacts of plate tectonics opening and closing and rerouting global ocean thermal conveyor systems, multi-decadal oscillations of the Pacific, Altlantic, Arctic, Antarctic ocean and atmosphere temperatures?
Are we not living on a thin and fine crust on top of a vast molten ocean?
Are we not just sacrificing humans to appease the global warming gods, like the extinct Mayans who sacrificed humans for better crops?
Just be cause it rains or doesn't, cannot be influenced by human sacrifices. What percentage of this change is caused by humans, and what can mere mortals do to stop it? We have to go along for the ride good or bad.
27
31
Rating: -4
Teedeer
I absolutely agree with the thought behind your questions Gordon. Not long ago even questioning Suzuki or Gore amounted to heresy but every day more of us are realizing that we live on a planet of ever-changing weather patterns. No doubt humans contribute in some way and being ecologically aware is the right thing but naturally occuring phenomona impact us far more than plastic shopping bags. Whatever you do don't let me get started on the silliness of "old growth" forests. I spent too many years on the west coast I see the tragic results of no opportunity for meaningful employment on the residents including Haida Gwai. Tourists cruise past in shiny white ships but no one spends money. This is the area that supplied spruce lumber for the Mosquitoe dive bomber that helped win WWII; it regenerates itself in less than a century. Think of Saskatchewan wheat fields X 100.
28
25
Rating: +3
smilingjack
gordon and teedeer - you would be the same lot that not long ago denied the arctic and antarctic ice sheets were even melting. now both are melting - greenland completely melted, and rapidly you've decided to take a new course of argument.
looks like trolling to me from multinationals trying to look like concerned citizens.
the science is there and the science is right. the republicans - they believe the world is 5000 years old and dinosaurs didnt exist - so a credibility rating of less then zero.
23
27
Rating: -4
lightcanada
google solarized e-trike,100s millions of these in use will help lower the co2 output and help to lower personal debt.
25
23
Rating: +2
smithsmith
The first two posters are the usual schills. Probably paid for by some advertising company somewhere. First it was - its not happening. Then it was - 'look at the global cooling claims'. Then it moved onto sure its happening but its not our fault. Now its 'it will be good for us'.

Its amazing that you can have literally 1000s of papers published in peer review journals as early as the 1970s pointing to ACC and still their are denier. That's why I can only deduce they are being paid because they certainly couldn't be that ignorant.

There is no growing movement questioning the science of ACC, in fact the movement of deniers is getting smaller by the day. See the recent Koch funded study where one of the largest deniers out there came out of the study saying 'dear god, we are in trouble'

27
22
Rating: +5
Pat Crowe
Fear sells.
Suzuki can hook you up.
23
36
Rating: -13
Please, Please, Please
Jenkins
"Doesn't the Antarctic pick up the slack as the Arctic Sea Ice melts?"

No. What would even make you think that ?
35
21
Rating: +14
Gene Logan
@ Teerdeer
Have you ever been to Haida Gwai? Have you seen what's left of the spruce forests that were gobbled up to make mosquito bombers and 2x4s? As for your claim that these forests regenerate themselves in less than a century, a one hundred year old tree is about ten or eleven inches in diameter.
25
20
Rating: +5
Teedeer
Gene - I spent my life on the North Coast, in 1976 I was part of a crew of Timber Cruisers in the Douglas Channel. We found 8' and 10' tree trunks that were felled using spring boards in the early 40's and new merchantable timber growing all around. The raincoast forest regenerates itself much quicker than most city folk realize and it can and should create employment for our people. The mid-coast is a beautiful area but its potential is wasted. I've seen the Kermode bear up close and never heard a single person who lived in the area suggest killing one. Some of us have been there and done that.
27
31
Rating: -4
Kim Collins
It sounds like the folks who still can't accept that it's our activities (i.e. burning of fossil fuels and deforestation) responsible for destabilizing the climate system are working through Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' 'Five Stages of Grief' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K%C3%BCbler-Ross_model). My guess is that many are at stage three right now:

1) Denial: "The climate is not changing."
2) Anger: "Eco-freaks, Al Gore, globalists, tax grab, scientists, cult!"
3) Bargaining: "We might cause a bit of it, but, it won't be bad. We'll adapt. Besides, technology will save us."
4) Depression "WTF. This ****ing sucks. WTF. What about the Jetsons future I was promised?"
5) Acceptance: "Wow, we really, really shat the bed. Our descendants, not to mention the other creatures we share this planet with, are not going to be very happy with us. The IEA says we have only what... only until 2017 to avoid a runaway climate change? Huh. Guess we should get serious about it then. What's that you say? We can use market-based policy tools like carbon pricing to address this? That sounds like it might be reasonable. What else can we do?"
25
32
Rating: -7
GA
I like your comment Kim..
I continue to find it hard to believe that there are people who still seek to find new ways to exploit our endangerd wilderness and can sleep at night.
24
33
Rating: -9
Add new comment
To prevent automated spam submissions leave this field empty.