16 august 2018

The Big Melt

Tim Flannery, The New York Review of Books, August 16, 2018 Issue

Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North

by Mark C. Serreze. Princeton University Press, 255 pp., $24.95

Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World
by Joel Berger, University of Chicago Press, 376 pp., $30.00

Since 1980, computer models have been predicting that a rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will cause the Arctic to warm twice as fast as areas at lower latitudes, putting it at high risk from climate change. But as Mark Serreze explains in Brave New Arctic, until the 2000s many scientists working in the Arctic, including himself, were having a tough time finding conclusive evidence that humans were having an impact on the region’s climate.

Serreze is now director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), based at the University of Colorado at Boulder. NSIDC’s Arctic Ice News website gives daily updates on the state of the poles, an exceptionally important service for those interested in the increasing effects of climate change. In 1982, however, he was an aimless geography major who almost randomly took a job as a field assistant on an expedition to the Arctic to investigate how the great ice sheets formed during the Ice Age. He thought himself handsomely remunerated at $5.00 per hour, as he measured two small, isolated ice caps on Ellesmere Island, hoping to determine whether they were growing or shrinking.

The Arctic is geographically complex, with an even more complicated weather system, and conducting research there is hard, dangerous, and expensive. Yet it’s important that the work be done, because climate changes that occur there have a disproportionate effect on our planet. The Greenland ice cap, for example, contains enough water, were it to melt, to raise sea levels globally by around twenty-three feet, and the Arctic permafrost contains enough carbon, were it to be released, to increase atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by ninety parts per million (as of June 2018 it stands at 409.25 parts per million).

Even more worryingly, the Arctic also holds large reserves of methane, in the form of clathrates—icy, lattice-shaped chemical structures known as “the ice that burns.” Much of it is under the permafrost both on land and under the sea, where it’s held stable by temperature and water pressure. All of these factors make scientists worry about the consequences as they watch Greenland’s ice melt ever more rapidly, permafrost melt extend in places, and craters form as clathrates become unstable and explode. But will any of these changes trigger a tipping point in the near future that will make climate change unstoppable? Without the strong research on the Arctic led by people like Serreze, we would be flying blind into what could be a very dangerous future.

In 1983, as Serreze was about to embark on his research career, he was “thinking about Arctic cooling and instantaneous glacierization” (the rapid growth of glaciers), and despite the computer models, “even secretly hoping for it.” The evidence for human impacts was not yet in. In 1990 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the changes in the Arctic “could still be largely due to natural variability,” and that unequivocal physical evidence of what the models were predicting might not be seen for at least a decade. Part of the problem was that the Arctic has a highly variable climate, influenced not only by year-to-year fluctuations but also by decadal cycles such as the shifts in atmospheric pressure known as the North Atlantic Oscillation.

It was not until around 1996, when oceanographers circulated a letter urging coordinated study of the changing Arctic, that the scientific community began making a concerted effort to understand what was happening there. Serreze played a major part in that research, yet as late as 2003 he was unconvinced that the data were showing anything beyond natural variability. That August, however, at a retreat hosted by the National Science Foundation, he had what he describes as “an OMG moment” as researcher after researcher spoke of “melt, thaw, disruption, destabilization, warming, moving, weakening, and uncharted trajectories.” Others took even longer to be convinced: Jim Overland, a leading oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, finally accepted that humans were changing the Arctic in 2008. Soon thereafter, however, things began happening so fast that only paid lobbyists, and those deluded by them, were denying the facts.

In the summer of 2007, Arctic ice cover reached an all-time low and was so far outside the range of the climate model projections that it shocked scientists. In summer 2012 there was so little ice in the Arctic Sea that open water reached close to the pole; for comparison, in 1980 Arctic summer ice covered an area around the size of the contiguous United States, minus Arizona. By 2012, it covered only 46 percent of that area. As Serreze explains, after that summer, scientists realized that it was a case of when, not if, the Arctic will lose all of its summer ice.

From a hard-to-detect start, climate change quickly gathered speed, and soon had the momentum of a charging rhino. So breathtaking was the shift that Serreze began to speak of the scientific community’s “utter astonishment” at the rate of melt and of a “death spiral” of the Arctic sea ice. Deep concern was sparked globally when, in the summer of 2012, almost the entire surface of the Greenland ice cap began to melt. Then, at the end of December 2015, air temperatures over the Arctic briefly reached above freezing. Serreze, seemingly in disbelief, describes the event as “simply unheard of".

In February 2018, after the completion of Serreze’s book, the Arctic experienced its fourth winter heatwave, with temperatures rising above freezing four years in a row. The 2018 heatwave was the most extreme, with a temperature of 43° Fahrenheit recorded at Greenland’s northernmost observatory, which is just 440 miles from the North Pole. For ten consecutive days, the station recorded above-freezing temperatures, and overall this year, temperatures in the Arctic have been up to 70° Fahrenheit higher than average. Unsurprisingly, the NSIDC website reveals that winter ice cover in the Arctic this year is the second-lowest on record, with the four smallest areas occurring over the last four years.

As Serreze makes clear, the Arctic climate system is now entering uncharted territory, with the computer models no longer providing a reliable guide to the future. Will we see an ice-free North Pole in 2018? Or an ice-free Arctic just twelve years from now, in the summer of 2030? Since the US North Pole Environmental Observatory was shut down in 2015, it has been much harder to answer such questions. And the public seems apathetic. On the phone with Serreze, the veteran journalist Seth Borenstein lamented, “How many times can a journalist report on what is happening in the Arctic before it becomes so repetitive that people lose interest?”

The great Dutch writer and historian Geert Mak once told me that in 1933 the Dutch newspapers were full of stories of the threat of Nazism, yet by 1938 those same papers were all but silent on the subject. Sometimes, it seems, threats to our future become so great that we opt to ignore them. Yet if we fail to act with the utmost urgency to slow climate change, we will invite catastrophe on all humanity.


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