Extreme Temperatures Are Melting The Arctic

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If you live in the US or Canada, you may have noticed that daily temperatures have been on the cool side lately. (My wife and I had the pellet stove going just a week ago, something we have never done in June.) There’s an explanation, say climate scientists. Usually there is a mass of cold air over the Arctic but this year temperatures at the top of the world have been as much as 40º Fahrenheit higher than normal.

All that warm air is pushing out the cold air and sending it cascading down over North America, making our weather cooler and wetter than normal. How bad is it? This tweet from Bill McKibben makes it crystal clear.

Melting Permafrost

It gets worse. A team of researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks traveled to the Canadian Arctic recently and found the permafrost there is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted. They were astounded by how quickly a succession of unusually hot summers have destabilized the upper layers of giant subterranean ice blocks that had been frozen solid for millennia, according to a report in The Guardian. “What we saw was amazing,” Vladimir Romanovsky, a professor of geophysics at the university, told Reuters. “It’s an indication that the climate is now warmer than at any time in the last 5,000 or more years.“

The research by the University of Fairbanks has been going on for more than a decade, but when the plane the research team was riding in this year dipped below the clouds near an abandoned military installation 300 kilometers north of the nearest civilization, they were shocked to see the unbroken frozen tundra they expected had disappeared.

In its place was an undulating sea of hummocks — waist-high depressions and ponds known as thermokarst. Vegetation, once sparse, was flourishing. Professor Romanovsky said the scene reminded him of the aftermath of a bombardment. “It’s a canary in the coalmine,” said Louise Farquharson, a postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the study. “It’s very likely that this phenomenon is affecting a much more extensive region and that’s what we’re going to look at next.“

What’s the big deal about permafrost? It’s just frozen water, isn’t it? Well, yes. but it’s also made up of large quantities of methane. And methane, you may recall, is a potent greenhouse gas 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when it comes to warming the atmosphere. More methane means higher temperatures which means more melting and even higher temperatures. It’s what is known as a feedback loop and it presages catastrophic changes to the environment are happening right now, not decades or centuries in the future.

“Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown and it’s happening before our very eyes,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, tells the Guardian. “This premature thawing is another clear signal that we must decarbonize our economies, and immediately.”

Unprecedented Ice Melt

Other climate researchers like Zachary Labe, at the University of California Irvine report that there is an unprecedented amount of ice melt over the Arctic Ocean at this time of year. Melting in Greenland is also far ahead of normal for this time of year and may set a record. It’s “another series of extreme events consistent with the long-term trend of a warming,” Labe says. Normally, melting this widespread over the ice sheet doesn’t occur until midsummer, if even then.

Weather satellites have been monitoring sea ice in the Arctic since 1979. At present, the ice coverage is the lowest on record for mid-June. The ice extent has been especially depleted in the part of the Arctic Ocean adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. “It’s pretty remarkable how much open water is in that area,” Labe says.

global temperatures in Arctic

The bulging zones of high pressure in the Arctic are facilitating the unusual warmth and intensified melting, according to the Washington Post. They are displacing the cold air normally contained in that region into the mid-latitudes over North America, much like a refrigerator door that’s been left open.

This has caused the extreme variations in the jet stream recently. “The jet stream this week was one of the craziest I’ve ever seen!” says Jennifer Francis, a leading researcher who studies Arctic changes and mid-latitude weather and a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center. She has suggested that conditions in the Arctic may have played a role in the extreme jet stream pattern that spurred the tornado swarm and record flooding in the central US during the last two weeks of May. “We can’t say that the rapid Arctic warming is causing this particularly pattern, but it certainly is consistent with that,” Francis says.

It’s Too Late Baby, It’s Too Late

Meanwhile, the putative president and the spineless Republican jellyfish continue to slavishly follow the wishes of the fossil fuel industry. The former brushes off climate warnings with a smug “I don’t believe it,” as if anyone could simply say that 2 + 2 = 4 is fake news if they wish to. The latter are too concerned with keeping the dollars flowing in from the Koch Brothers to care.

The evidence suggests the world has already entered an era of unprecedented climate change, one that will see average global temperatures increase far more than 1.5º C, but global leaders are doing next to nothing to address the issue. Israel is dedicating a new community to Donald Trump. England is praying for a new Falklands war to take its mind off its Brexit troubles. And US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is jetting around the world crowing about how melting ice in the Arctic is a wonderful thing because it will make it easier to drill for oil and gas in the region.

Any hope that the world can limit global warming to merely disastrous levels is fading rapidly. In fact, it may already be too late for humans to do anything significant about the rotten, stinking mess they have made, which reminds me of this prophetic ditty by Yip Harburg:

God made the world in six days flat.

On the seventh, He said, “I’ll rest.”

So He let the thing into orbit swing,

To give it a dry run test.

A billion years went by,

Then he took a look at the whirling blob.

His spirits fell as he said,

“Oh well. It was only a six day job.”

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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