The state of the polar ice-caps is a pretty good indicator of the warming effects of climate change on our planet. While the whole debate about human activity being a contributory factor for climate change rages in the scientific, political and business arenas, we are making steady progress towards irreversible changes to our climate that could have catastrophic consequences for us all.
The US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) has reported that at the start of 2008 the Arctic had a larger area of ice cover than at the same time the previous year, but, the majority of the ice is much thinner and so will melt far more readily. These findings were confirmed by NASA, which found that in March 2008 the surface area of sea covered by ice was larger than in 2007, but much of this ice was made up of thin floes formed during the previous winter, which will be less likely to survive the summer months. Julienne Stroeve from NSIDC in Boulder, Colorado told the BBC, "We had a bit more ice in the winter, although we were still way below the long-term average... So we had a partial recovery. But the real issue is that most of the pack ice has become really thin, and if we have a regular summer now, it can just melt away."
Now the ice cover is as low as it was last June, which, at the time, was the lowest it had been since records began. The rate of loss of Arctic sea ice is astounding; the surface area of ice-cover has fallen from 7.8 million sq km in 1980 to 4.2 million sq km in the summer of 2007. The predicted timescale of an ice-free Arctic sea has been revised downwards from earlier estimates of 2080 to a worrying 2013. Dr Stroeve added, "I think we're going to beat last year's record melt, though I'd love to be wrong... If we do, then I don't think 2013 is far off any more. If what we think is going to happen does happen, then it'll be within a decade anyway."
The consequences of ice-free summers in the Arctic seas would be felt around the world. Warmer seas and rising sea levels could be disastrous. If all the ice in the ice cap melted, it would raise sea levels around the world by around seven metres (22ft). Dr Ian Willis, from the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge describes the event to the BBC as "a positive feedback process... Sea ice has a higher albedo (reflectivity) than ocean water; so as the ice melts, the water absorbs more of the Sun's energy and warms up more, and that in turn warms the atmosphere more - including the atmosphere over the Greenland ice sheet."
While many of us are concerned about the loss of the polar ice-cap, perversely there are people that can see a benefit to this phenomenon. For some countries the ice loss will bring scope for economic exploitation. Canada, Russia and the USA are all looking at the possibility of increased oil and gas exploration in the newly exposed land and sea mass.
I find it amazing that while the Earth's climate is changing in part because of our over dependence and excessive use of fossil fuels, our political leaders are looking for ways to extract even more fossil fuels from the Earth. I can understand the importance of fossil fuels for all of us, but surely we should be using the opportunity of a decline in their availability to instigate a programme of research into ways of sustaining our Western lifestyles using environmentally sound alternative fuels. Billions of dollars is spent every year on oil and gas exploration, if this money was diverted to alternative fuel research, I'm sure we would make much greater progress towards viable environmentally sound energy sources. Looking at the diminishing polar ice-cap, the time we have left to really make a difference on climate change is rapidly running out.
- Antarctic Ice - Cut Like a Cake
- Letters from Antarctica - Interview with a Climate Modeller
- Melting from Pole to Pole
- Letters from Antarctica - Interviewing Education 'Ambassadors' on the Ice
- Czech Greenhouses Popping Out of Antarctic Ice
- Letters from Antarctica: a Night on the Ice and an Interview with Dr. Stephen Pekar
- Letters from Antarctica: Interview I - The ANDRILL Project