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Arctic Expert on Sea Ice: We Could "Reach Zero" Within Two Years
Wednesday, 21 September 2016 00:00 By Dahr Jamail, Truthout | Interview
Arctic sea ice is in big trouble.
This is bad news for multiple reasons, the primary one being that Arctic
sea ice helps keep the polar regions cool along with working to moderate
the entire global climate.
"Sea ice has a bright surface; 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes
it is reflected back into space," explains the National Snow and Ice
Data Center's website. "As sea ice melts in the summer, it exposes the
dark ocean surface. Instead of reflecting 80 percent of the sunlight,
the ocean absorbs 90 percent of the sunlight. The oceans heat up, and
Arctic temperatures rise further."
This also explains the most well-known -- and what is most likely the
most important -- climate-related positive feedback loop, which has
already spun out of control.
When it comes to anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), the Arctic is
the proverbial canary in the coalmine. And if Arctic sea ice expert Dr.
Peter Wadhams is right, that canary will likely be gone within two
years. This would be the first time in more than 10,000 years that the
Arctic sea ice has disappeared.
Dr. Wadhams has been a professor of ocean physics at Cambridge
University since 2001 and was the director of the Scott Polar Institute
there from 1987 to 1992. He has also made more than 50 trips to the
Arctic. Dr. Wadhams was one of the very first scientists to show that
the icecap that once covered the entire Arctic Ocean was starting to
both grow thinner and shrink in area.
Dr. Wadhams recently published A Farewell to Ice, a book that explains,
in depth, how the sea ice is vanishing at an alarming rate, and details
the dire consequences for the Earth if the sea ice continues to
disappear at these rates.
His work and recent book could not be more relevant, as it has been a
record hot year for the planet -- and Arctic sea ice is, by most
measurements, on pace to reach its second-lowest annual minimum, with
open water gaps appearing even near the North Pole.
Current tracking shows that the sea ice is following a steady downward
trajectory of melting, and there is no evidence to indicate that this
trend will not continue. This makes sense, given that recently released
NASA data show that August was the hottest August since record-keeping
began, and it tied July for the warmest month ever recorded.
Truthout interviewed Dr. Wadhams to provide a more in-depth perspective
about what it means for the planet to lose Arctic sea ice.
Truthout: Numerous people have predicted the vanishing of the Arctic sea
ice in summer, including a US Navy study that predicted it by this
summer, but they've all been too early in their predictions. Why do you
feel confident about predicting that summer Arctic sea ice will
disappear in either 2017 or 2018 at the latest?
Dr. Peter Wadhams: I don't feel confident -- it's simply that this is
the trend shown by the sea ice volume in recent years, and since that
volume is now quite small, it ought to reach zero within one to two more
years. But, of course, something could happen to change that.
How does the rate of Arctic sea ice loss now compare to, say, 20 years ago?
The rate of change of area (averaged over the year) has increased from 3
percent per decade to 8 percent per decade.
What are the immediate and most dramatic regional impacts of the loss of
the summer Arctic sea ice on the Arctic?
First, the loss from the shallow shelf areas north of Siberia is
dangerous because it encourages emission of methane from the sea bed as
the offshore permafrost melts. Secondly, the loss from Baffin Bay and
East Greenland in summer encourages warm winds over the Greenland ice
sheet, which cause ice-sheet melt and accelerated sea level rise.
How will global climate be impacted by the loss of the summer Arctic sea
The main effect is global albedo reduction. [Albedo, a critically
important element of ACD, is the Earth's measure of reflectivity. When
Earth's albedo increases, more sunlight and solar radiation is reflected
back into space.] This has been calculated as equivalent to adding 25
percent to the warming effect of the greenhouse gases alone. Albedo
reduction due to parallel snow area loss [less snow means less
albedo/reflectivity, which means more solar radiation and heat are
absorbed by Earth] adds another 25 percent.
We have reported quite extensively on the threat of increasing amounts
of methane being released as permafrost melts. Why should people be
concerned about methane releases in the Arctic, and the fact that these
We have modeled what would happen if the rate of emission increased
radically to be equivalent to a 50-gigaton pulse (predicted by the
Russian scientists who work on offshore methane). It would give a 0.6C
boost to global warming immediately -- which is a very large figure.
On August 18 a massive luxury cruise ship departed Seward, Alaska to
head up to the Arctic, where it will cruise across the coast en route to
New York City. Given your expertise on the Arctic, please share your
thoughts about the fact that a company is now exploiting the open ocean
there for profit, and already has plans for another cruise given that
the first one sold out.
It's very dangerous, as the cruise ship has no ice protection. I was on
an NAS [National Academy of Sciences] panel, which considered the
implications of an oil spill in Alaskan coastal waters. In our report,
the sinking of a cruise ship was one of the most serious scenarios,
since it creates an oil slick and the humanitarian problem of how to
deal with perhaps 2,000 passengers in a region with no facilities at all.
You have been outspoken and frank about how rapidly the situation is
changing in the Arctic. Why do you suppose more scientists aren't being
as outspoken in their alarm and concern over what is happening there and
what it means to the planet?
Career considerations: If they speak out, they fear that it will upset
their promotion prospects, so they keep their heads down.
Similarly, why do you feel most major media tend to shy away from
reporting accurately on how far along we already are regarding
anthropogenic climate disruption?
Often the proprietor has a vested interest in the continuation of fossil
fuel use, e.g. Rupert Murdoch has big interests in the Australian coal
My reportage on climate disruption presupposes that many of our readers
understand it cannot be stopped at this point... that we can, at best,
hope to mitigate the impacts somewhat. Do you propose any solutions for
what can be done along those lines, both on a personal as well as a
In my book, I acknowledge that nothing we can do to reduce CO2 emissions
is enough, because there is already more than enough CO2 in the
atmosphere to cause a 2C warming. [2C warming above preindustrial
baseline temperatures has been an internationally agreed-upon political
goal of the maximum warming that can be allowed. Global governments
agreed in Paris in December 2016 that 1.5C should be the maximum warming
allowed; however, we are already very near to that limit today, just 10
months after the Paris climate talks.] The only things we can do are to,
first, put a sticking plaster on warming by use of geoengineering
techniques to reflect more radiation -- for example, marine cloud
brightening -- and second, to solve the problem properly by spending a
lot of thought and energy developing a cost-effective method of direct
air capture of CO2 from the atmosphere.
Any final thoughts you'd like to leave with our readers?
As a final point, sea ice retreat from the Greenland Sea has prevented
the formation of chimneys -- deep cylinders through which surface water
sinks to great depths. This slows the thermohaline circulation [the
movement of seawater in a pattern of flow dependent on variations in
temperature, which give rise to changes in salt content and hence in
density], which will result in cooling -- or slower warming -- of the
Northwestern Atlantic coastline (e.g. Britain) and faster warming of the
tropical Atlantic (e.g. more intense hurricanes).
The latest research echoes Dr. Wadhams' concerns.
Earlier this year, NASA provided data showing that the wintertime Arctic
sea ice extent had hit a record low.
Rapid loss of sea ice continued until May, but then slowed enough that
the previous summertime sea ice minimum record was not broken.
That said, Walt Meier, a sea ice scientist at NASA's Goddard Space
Flight Center in Maryland announced this August: "Even when it's likely
that we won't have a record low, the sea ice is not showing any kind of
recovery. It's still in a continued decline over the long term. A decade
ago, this year's sea ice extent would have set a new record low and by a
fair amount. Now, we're kind of used to these low levels of sea ice --
it's the new normal."
Thus, as Dr. Wadhams warns, if the "new normal" continues at the current
trajectory, within two years, the Earth is going to look very, very
[Disclosure: I correspond with Dr. Wadhams on an irregular basis.]
Active optimism: What's the best that could happen? (now, go MAKE it
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