The Arctic and Antarctica, the Canaries in the Mine

The Alaska Idaterode on water instead of ice

Siberia, Alaska, the boreal and tropical forests around the world have been burning , extreme and unusual droughts affect periodically places like India, Australia, Central America, and the American West, the Monsoon is arriving late and then overflowing the dried up areas, extremely hot temperatures and polar vortices take turns around the world. The answer to all this climate havoc is the disturbance of both poles by our cumulative and excessive greenhouse emissions.

The heating of the atmosphere by our fossil fuel burning has disturbed the atmospheric and oceanic currents that rule our climate. The Arctic is the first canary in the mine; it has been experiencing unusually high temperatures, warming at least twice as fast as the global average. Antarctica, which had been considered only a long term problem by previous climate models, is showing dire signs of disturbance that weren’t supposed to happen until much later. These facts signal us that the easy solutions for limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees, advocated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN, the Paris Agreement and a growing consensus of climate optimists including politicians advocating a Green New deal, are just dreams.

Accelerated warming in the Arctic, as compared to the rest of the globe has profound impacts on global weather. Recent summers have seen strong reductions in sea-ice extent, thickness, and age, while in the opposite pole, the West Antarctic Peninsula is the second-fastest warming area on Earth, the second canary in the mine.

These two areas spell doom for our future survival and their importance should be acknowledged by the inhabitants of the planet. Homo sapiens developed the technology to disturb these key areas but refuses to use the species intellect to learn about them and understand the threat these changes represent for them and their offspring.

What happens in the Arctic and Antarctica doesn’t stay there, the effects circle all around the world. The Poles help to stabilize the weather of the Earth by keeping a white cover of ice that helps to relay the right amount of sun rays back into space. Ice Ages were caused by a reduction in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere leading to an increase of ice in the poles, creating feedback mechanisms that made the Earth cooler and cooler. The ice age would end when a cosmic or natural event would cause the rise of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, reducing the ice and the reflection of heat back into space.

Our current situation is the only one entirely caused by a fossil fuel extravaganza of its most accomplished species. We are nearing a Blue Ocean Event (BOE), meaning that there will be less than 1 million square kilometers of sea ice in the Arctic at the end of the melt season. According to the US intelligence services, the Summit computer at Oak Ridge Tennessee has modeled the Arctic ice, and it is predicting a BOE within a window from 2022 to 2026.

Sea Ice Extent in the North Pole alarmingly low for 2019

The BOE event will dramatically increase the chain reaction of events that will worsen the climate crisis. The most threatening effect of Arctic warming is the repercussion on the permafrost of land and Sea. The areas surrounding the Arctic Circle are experiencing rapid melting allowing the methane and carbon stored under it to be released into the atmosphere.

The probabilities of near BOE event are also increased by the possible occurrence of an El Niño in 2020. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Director Emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research expresses the concern of an international group of scientists when he says: “The probability of ‘El Niño’ coming in 2020 is around 80%”. Its effects would trigger a spike in Arctic melting that could release unprecedented quantities of methane into the atmosphere and destroy any hopes of limiting the temperature rise to 2 degrees.

Methane bubbling in the Arctic and escaping into Atmosphere

The sea over the Eastern Siberian plate has the greatest quantity of hydrocarbons in the world sealed under the permafrost. This is due to the abundance of rivers that empty in the area providing lots of silt that was processed by microorganisms to create large quantities of methane and carbon. This plate is the most dangerous for our climate prospects since the shallowness of the waters in the area implies even warmer water and increased melting of the ice and permafrost.

According to Russian scientist Natalia Shakhova and colleagues, who have been studying Siberia and the Arctic since the 1990s, the changes in the East Siberian shelf are very evident and frightening; the whole ice structure has become alarmingly unstable with a reduction in ice thickness from 2 meters to 40 centimeters, accompanied by lots of brine and small ice. Shakhova explains that the ice had been keeping a seal over the vast quantities of methane and carbon deposited there in the form of methane hydrates, so it is quite disturbing to see the drastic reduction in sea ice. To put the amount in perspective, the current amount of methane in the atmosphere is about 5 gigatons and the amount deposited under the permafrost of the East Siberian shelf is from 100 to 100 thousand gigatons of methane. With just a release of 0.01 of that methane, our prospects of survival greatly diminish.

Shakhova also explained the process by which the methane escapes into the atmosphere. As ice on the Arctic melts, the open water oxidizes the methane in the methane hydrates. The wind over the open water increases the churning effect of the water column, creating gas migration pathways that manage to bring up to the surface even deeper methane to be destabilized and released. It has also been found that the salt in seawater intensifies the dissociation of gas hydrates.

The methane problem has even made it to the mainstream media, including an article in Newsweek magazine reporting about areas of the Arctic where the sea is bubbling with methane. This makes evident that what Shakhova describes is already happening. What we think is just a trickle of methane can be deceiving; the vicious circle of more man-made emissions, subsequent ice loss, and perturbed oceanic and atmospheric currents, will end up providing the impetus for exponential growth in the release of methane.

A recent interview with Cambridge University professor in Ocean Physics Peter Wadhams expresses well the situation we are in. Wadhams agrees with Shakhova about the extreme risk that the Eastern Siberian Plate presents to our survivability on Earth. He believes, just like Shakhova, that there are high probabilities for a sudden huge methane release or pulse that would cause havoc with our planet’s climate and limit our possibilities of survival to about 5 years after the event.

All of the above makes it obvious that we already have an uncontrollable methane emissions problem. This means that even if all countries would cut their emissions as promised by the Paris Agreement, which is doubtful since it is not binding, we would still have emissions coming from the methane release in the Arctic heating the biosphere further. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) Energy Outlook, global carbon emissions are unlikely to peak before 2040. This corroborates the futility of the Paris Agreement since these man-made emissions will add to the Arctic methane ones to compound the climate problem.

Ocean Currents that Keep Europe Warm are Weakening

The increased heating of the Arctic has another detrimental effect on our climate since it is affecting the normal operation of the heat transfer from the tropics to the Poles and back South again. This cycle is essential for the distribution of heat around the planet performed by atmospheric and oceanic currents that are affected by water density and temperature. Saltier and colder water is denser, warm water moves on the surface of the sea from the tropics to the Poles, where it is cooled, becomes denser and sinks to the bottom to continue its path back to the tropics. The melting of the Arctic and the glaciers around it is making the water warmer and less salty, which disturbs the whole cycle with repercussions for the climate of the whole planet.

An example of atmospheric current disturbance is the upsetting of the Jet Stream, the air current that separates the cold air of the Arctic from the more temperate air in lower latitudes. Its disturbance causes for the Polar Vortex to move lower into latitudes where it shouldn’t be. This is why, though the planet is experiencing general global warming, there are locations in the Northern latitudes that can experience unusual low temperatures in winter when the Jet Stream allows for the Polar vortex to descend to unusual places. As a result, the Arctic area ends up warmer than places like Chicago or New York.

The situation in the Arctic is enough to create a scenario that is not very pleasant for the future of humanity. Unfortunately, the other pole is completing the horror with new evidence of worrisome changes that contradict the previous climate models projecting a much later occurrence. Antarctica is the other canary in the mine that combined with the one in the Arctic, should be a wake-up call for the growing number of people who believe there are easy solutions to the climate crisis.

Antarctica is a continent covered with an ice sheet, different from the Arctic, which is a sea covered with ice. This makes a difference in their impact on sea rising. The ice in the Arctic is already a volume in the surrounding sea, so its melting doesn’t create rising seas; the glaciers in the Arctic do increase the volume of water as they melt. Antarctica’s continental ice acts just like glaciers, only at a grand scale that would dramatically increase the risks of sea-level rise.

Scientists have discovered recently that the ice in Antarctica is melting much faster than thought, the glaciers are being attacked from two fronts: warming of the air and of the ocean water. Warm seawater erodes the glaciers from below and weakens their structure, while the warmer air fastens their melting from above. These ice formations are very vulnerable since once the ice reaches the ocean, it becomes a floating ice shelf that ends as an ice-cliff that can become unstable and collapse quite fast. The Ross Ice Shelf, the largest in the world, is melting 10 times faster than expected. This is quite worrisome, since it is several hundred meters thick, with 90% of the ice below sea level.

In order to gauge the amount of sea rise we can expect from the projected global warming, scientists examined data from the last inter-glacial age, which occurred about 120,000 years ago. During that time, temperatures were 1 degree Celsius higher than today, but similar to what will happen to us in the very near future. This increase in temperature corresponded to about 10 meters above the present level.

The Thwaites Glacier one of the biggest in Antarctica has a hole 2/3the size of Manhattan

The difference between this inter-glacial period and us is that the warming didn’t happen simultaneously in both poles. The melting started in Antarctica and once it affected the circulation of ocean currents, which act like climate conveyor belts, the melting was transmitted to Greenland a few thousand years later. Unfortunately in our case, both poles have been affected at about the same time, which compounds the effects on ocean currents. What is striking about the inter-glacial study is how quickly the seas started to rise after global temperatures reached the warming target that according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would keep us safe. The rate of rising during the inter-glacial period was about 3 meters per century.

Taking into account the great importance of the poles in our climate stability, it becomes more and more evident that their present disturbance constitutes a bad sign for our survival on Earth. We can dream all we want about the wonders of alternative energy sources that can potentially transition us out of fossil fuels and will allow us to continue with our economic and belief systems, but the evidence from the Earth’s systems can’t lie. The mounting proof from the poles represents a dire sign for all of humanity. Whether we prefer to acknowledge it or not, the bad news is still there, and by not acknowledging it, we are just deferring confronting a bad situation.

Modern humanity has weathered several crises, plagues, wars, and natural disasters, but since the end of the Holocene, about 12,000 years ago, it has not experienced the devastating repercussions of unbalanced climate systems. Before the Holocene, humans had trouble increasing their population since trials at agriculture failed due to chaotic climatic conditions, which precluded sedentary life-style as a viable option. Once the climate became orderly, agriculture flourished in several areas simultaneously and we were able to organize in towns, civilization started and progress followed its course. Unfortunately, this progress has happened without a check-and-balance approach about its impact on the planet that sustains us.

The currently accepted discourse on climate change continues a denial of the reality of the situation, that Frederic Nietzsche would have called a continued “will to ignorance”. We seem to go through layers of denial, as though it were an onion. We have traveled from the complete lack of climate acceptance in the general consensus to a wider one of acceptance but without much commitment. The latest approach to the center of the onion, espoused by Greta Thunberg and Green New Deal politicians, appears to deal with the problem by correctly blaming fossil fuels for our trouble; yet, it is still a chimera, they continue in denial of the dire and uncontrollable situation that we are in and of the low probabilities of success of their proposals.

A small percentage of humanity has arrived at the center of the onion, a complete acceptance of the stark reality we are facing. The degrees of denial that remain in the population are quite normal for our species, we are used to a progress timeline as the status quo, and admitting that this seemingly beneficial progression has reduced dramatically our chances of survival will immediately call into action our capacity for self-delusion. As the Earth increasingly shows us its responses to our foolishness, more people will arrive at the center of the onion and transition from a “will to ignorance” to a “will to knowledge”.




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Helena Dearnell

Helena Dearnell

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