Science Says: No Ice in the North Pole by 2016

Record low Arctic Ice will impact climate change, sea level rise, and food security.

Is that the saddest yellow line you've ever seen? (Photo: NASA/Reuters)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

The summer ice cap in the Arctic will be gone within four years, a leading expert has predicted, calling the imminent melt a “global disaster.” 

“Climate change is no longer something we can aim to do something about in a few decades’ time, and that we must not only urgently reduce CO2 emissions but must urgently examine other ways of slowing global warming, such as the various geoengineering ideas that have been put forward,” Dr. Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, told the Guardian

Wadhams has collected years of data on the thickness of sea ice from submarines that motor under Arctic ice. The cause of the melt, he says plainly, is global warming.

The Arctic will be ice-free by 2015 or 2016, Wadhams told the Guardian, and “the final collapse towards that state is now happening.” 

MORE: Dear Mr. President: Why on Earth Are You Allowing Shell's Arctic Drilling?

Earlier estimates predicted that summer ice in the Arctic would last another 50 years. But the accelerating rate of ice melt has surprised climatologists.  

On September 16, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) announced that the sea ice cover had reached a record low of 1.32 million square miles—the smallest amount of Arctic ice ever documented, and about half the average recorded between 1979 and 2000.

 “We are now in uncharted territory,” NSIDC director Mark Serreze wrote in a press release. “While we’ve long known that as the planet warms up, changes would be seen first and be most pronounced in the Arctic, few of us were prepared for how rapidly the changes would actually occur.”

The center had previously announced a record low of 1.58 million square miles on August 26, only to see that record shattered a few weeks later.

“The six lowest September ice extents have all been in the past six years,” Serezze told NBC News. “I think that’s quite remarkable.” Sezerre said he believes summer ice will have melted completely by 2030—a slightly longer time frame than posited by Dr. Wadhams. 

But they seem to agree that the impacts of the great Arctic melt will be drastic—and should serve as a sober warning to policymakers.

Warmer Arctic conditions will likely release huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas currently trapped under permafrost. When released, as much as four billion tons of methane will pollute the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming.

The melting at the top of the world will also cause sea level rise, threatening the security and health of coastal communities.

As the Arctic heats up, many fish species will travel north, seeking colder ocean temperatures. This, in turn, will alter the availability of food sources.

Not everyone is recoiling in horror at the idea of an ice-free Arctic. Some see the melting as a chance to enrich magnates and investors in shipping and oil companies.

The Northwest Passage along Canada’s coast and the Northern Sea Route along Russia were so watery this summer that ship traffic passed easily, Reuters reported, and investors met in Alaska to plot the commercialization of shipping routes across the formerly ice-choked Arctic.

Earlier this month, Royal Dutch Shell celebrated its first plunge into the North Pole from its offshore drilling rig in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea. 

But Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace, says that we cannot let big business determine our climate policies. “Rather than dealing with the root causes of climate change, the current response from our leaders is to watch the ice melt and then divide up the spoils,” Naidoo said in a statement. 

James Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has called for a worldwide tax on carbon emissions. Hansen does not mince words. He has said that inaction on climate change is a “great moral issue,” akin to slavery.

Should oil and gas companies be plotting the commercialization of shipping routes across the formerly ice-choked Arctic?

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