It’s hard to know which is worse when contemplating the climate crisis – the inability of our collective politics to address the issue, or the vast new power of nature to overturn our world now that we have supercharged its processes via the burning of fossil fuels. Since it’s hard to face such a crisis when we can't see a practical path to viability, it’s too tempting to escape into denial.
Thus, when I first noticed an article on the climate crisis by Moishe Blechman, Sierra Atlantic’s Chairman of the Publication and Climate Crisis Committees in their Fall 2014 newsletter, my first reaction was to skip it thinking I already know all the bad news I can currently handle. But later I was drawn back perhaps by its provoking title, “Arctic ice is the key indicator of climate crisis,” and perhaps also by its brevity. In the space of less than 1200 words, Blechman was able to effectively draw attention to three of the crucial issues. Interestingly, it was only after I decided to look more closely into the details of the article, that I was able to puzzle over just how sweeping and desperate is his conclusion.
Blechman points to three climate tipping points. Perhaps for reasons of space, he doesn't define “tipping point.” I found Wikipedia’s definition helpful.
A climate tipping point is a somewhat ill-defined concept of a point when global climate changes from one stable state to another stable state, in a similar manner to a wine glass tipping over. After the tipping point has been passed, a transition to a new state occurs. The tipping event may be irreversible, comparable to wine spilling from the glass: standing up the glass will not put the wine back.
The first tipping point Blechman outlines is the change and speed of the jet stream. It’s a change, he stresses, that is permanent. He explains that the new path of the jet stream circumscribes a huge loop bringing cool air much further south than it has in the past. As we might have feared, the new cool air in the south allows mid-latitude warm air to flow into the Arctic in a warming cycle that reduces its ice cover at disquieting speeds.
The second tipping point is the warming of the oceans that are delivering extraordinary heat to Arctic ice which is melting faster than Antarctic ice because the former rests on water instead of land. We are temporarily insulated from some of the effects of global warming because 70% of the extra heat is absorbed by the ocean but this warming is melting Arctic ice so rapidly that that it’s now predicted to be gone by 2016!
Loss of Arctic ice entails loss of the reflectivity of solar energy not only from the Arctic but from all of the northern lakes and expanses of Canada and Siberia, destabilizing the radiative balance. Blechman avers that humanity is already under siege with only the 0.80 C increase in average temperature since the advent of the industrial age so that the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change call for average temperature increase to be limited to 20 C is wholly inadequate.
The third tipping point
The third tipping point is the melting of the permafrost now gaining momentum throughout the Arctic seas and across Alaska, Canada and all of Siberia. The permafrost consists of ancient deposits of organic matter which are released as methane and CO2.. Even scarier than CO2, methane is released in uncountable numbers of gigatons and is 125 times more powerful than other greenhouse gasses, with CO2 merely the trigger. Blechman reports that in the Siberian tundra a crater emerged between 60 and 80 meters wide, reaching deep into the earth and spewing explosive vents of vast quantities of methane. Later, two more such craters were found.
Blechman underscores the threat that methane may become the “dominant climate forming agent, warming the planet inexorably … creat[ing] unsupportable changes.” He says that the key to stability is maintaining historical Arctic ice. And then he writes: “The only possibility to avoid a dead world is to start to cool the Arctic. A living Earth depends on putting the ice back.”
What did he say?
He wants us to put the ice back!!!!
I guess Blechman means to emphasize that we have to start now!! if we’re going to have a chance at holding back the catastrophic loss of the Arctic ice sheet.
Yes, indeed, many will agree that it’s well past time to look the devil in the eye. While we still have energy and hope, we must do what we can to preserve as much as we can of our global heritage.
Blechman ends with pointers to more information. He suggests that we Google the following important resources.
Arctic Emergency: Scientists Speak
Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG); and
Arctic News, especially a video: The Arctic Monster’s Rapid Rise