Why the melting of the Arctic sea ice matters

I’m more than a little frustrated by the ignoramuses online who claim that climate change isn’t happening or is just Mother Nature taking her natural course. Either they scientifically illiterate or amoral sociopaths who don’t care about the consequences of not dealing with greenhouse gas emissions.

NOAA recently graphed the Arctic sea ice extent over the last 1500 years, which clearly shows that the recent loss of Arctic sea ice is not part of some natural cycle:

K. Pistone et al (2014) found that loosing 40% of the Arctic sea ice area between 1979 and 2011 decreased the planetary albedo (reflectivity) over the Arctic from 0.52 to 0.48 and that decrease in the amount of reflected light caused warming that was the equivalent of a quarter of all global CO2 emissions during that time period. We are now on route to losing all summer time sea ice at some point in the next decade or two. Some experts think it could happen as soon as 2020. This probably will double the warming measured by Pistone et al. due to the reduction in the albedo.

Loosing all the Arctic sea ice means a lot more than losing a few polar bears. According to Shakhova et al (2008), there are 1400 gigatonnes of carbon locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost. If the Arctic starts melting that methane could escape and cause a dramatic burst in warming. There are indications that the methane is already starting to escape in increasing amounts. It is estimated that roughly 0.5 million tonnes of methane have traditionally been released every year by the Siberian Arctic. In 2006, that amount had increased to 3.8 million tonnes and it was 17 million tonnes in 2013. If this continues to increase at an exponential rate, then we can expect far more warming than is predicted by the IPCC’s CMIP5 climate change models.

What will be the effect of melting the Arctic methane? Nobody is really sure. Currently humans emit roughly 10.9 gigatonnes of carbon per year. According to the CarbonBrief, the global climate budget for a 66% chance of keeping global temperature rise under 2 and 3 degrees C is 219 and 601 gigatonnes of carbon, respectively. Most experts don’t think that all the Arctic methane will leak, but if a quarter of it leaks, then it will effectively double global warming. If all of it leaks, then it might be the end of the human race.

2 thoughts on “Why the melting of the Arctic sea ice matters

  1. Sonja

    “Either they scientifically illiterate or amoral sociopaths who don’t care about the consequences of not dealing with greenhouse gas emissions.”

    And you base the above statement on what scientific evidence? Could it be that the scientists have not made their case in a truly understandable fashion? Could it be that the “deniers” are protesting against “believers” who continue to drive cars, own huge houses, own huge jets, etc.? Why should they believe it is a severe problem when the thought leaders are not doing much on a personal level to show that it is a problem.

    Blaming or shaming other because they do not “get it” is not a path forward.

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  2. amosbatto Post author

    Sonja, At this point the scientific evidence is so overwhelming, that a denier either knows nothing about science or knows the science and simply doesn’t care about the consequences of climate change. According to the UN, 400,000 people die every year around the planet due to climate change. A person who denies the science of climate change and blocks action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is morally responsible for those deaths. When Cook et al (2013) find that 97.1% of peer reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2011 support anthropogenic climate change, you can no longer claim that there is not enough evidence or that a scientific consensus does not exist.

    If you don’t think it is presented in an “understandable fashion,” then you are simply incapable of reading, because 198 scientific organizations around the globe have made very clear declarations that climate change is occurring and it is caused by humans. The booklet “Climate Change: Evidence and Causes” and the video “An introduction to Climate Change in 60 second” produced by the US National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society is so crystal clear, that you cannot claim that it isn’t presented in an “understandable fashion”. See: http://nas-sites.org/americasclimatechoices/

    Even if you think that people who accept the scientific consensus are hypocrites because they haven’t cut their own emissions, that is no justification for denying the scientific consensus and trying to convince the public that anthropogenic climate change isn’t occurring.

    Denial of the science is being used as a justification to not take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, so yes, I should be “blaming or shaming other because they do not ‘get it’.” People who deny truth and make it impossible to act on truth are morally culpable for the consequences, which means the deaths of millions of people, and famine and forced migrations for many millions more. We have already emitted enough greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to eventually raise the oceans by 25 meters. All those millions of people who live on the coasts will loose their homes if actions aren’t taken to get the CO2 levels down from 410 to 350 ppm. If you stand in the way of the necessary policies to switch to 100% renewable energy, stop deforestion, promote energy efficiency, reduce meat consumption, and other ways to reduce GHG emissions, then you are responsible for throwing millions of coastal residents out of their homes.

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