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The Arctic Turns Ugly

Runaway global warming is far and away humankind’s biggest nightmare, and the Arctic is the likely perpetrator. If it happens, it’ll blister agricultural foodstuff before it can reach the outstretched arms of the multitudes. Then what?

Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute of California recently warned, “What is happening in the Arctic now is unprecedented and possibly catastrophic,” Ian Johnston, Arctic Warming: Rapidly Increasing Temperatures are Possibly Catastrophic for Planet, Climate Scientist Warns, Independent, February 25, 2016. “The evidence is very clear that rapid and unprecedented changes are happening in the Arctic.”

Dr. Gleick finds a growing body of “pretty scary” evidence that increasing temperatures create horrendously dangerous storms throughout the Northern Hemisphere. For example, the polar vortex and anomalous jet streams brought record-breaking hot and cold weather to the U.S. in 2015. In the UK, unusually strong storms brought massive flooding with record rainfall.

Understandably, it is especially difficult for people, other than scientists, to comprehend the risks associated with an unusually warm ice-free Arctic. After all, the Arctic is so remote, at the top of the world, the North Pole with its attendant fantasies, like images of Santa Claus and playful reindeer, fuzzy polar bear cubs, and cute little baby seals.

But, metaphorically, the Arctic has turned sour, frowny-faced as it rapidly loses its structure, built on multi-year ice, but multi-year ice is going fast, very fast, fading, losing integrity, infrastructure, its permanence. This is comparable to the walls of a home collapsing.

Yet, dangerous storms are only one part of the story. “As the water of the Arctic Ocean keeps getting warmer, the danger increases that heat will reach the seafloor where it can trigger release of huge amounts of methane (CH4), in an additional feedback loop that will make warming in the Arctic accelerate and escalate into runaway warming,” Three Kinds of Warming in the Arctic, Arctic News, February 26, 2016.

Runaway global warming is exactly like it sounds, an earth-shattering asteroid collision that turns the planet into a fireball.

According to Paul Beckwith, Laboratory for Paleoclimatology and Climatology, University of Ottawa: “The Arctic is absorbing a lot more solar energy, and by itself at a much greater rate, than anywhere else on the planet. In fact, on average, in the last number of decades, the Arctic temperature has risen 1.0C per decade whereas the global average temperature rise has been about 0.15C per decade. So that ratio is 6 or 7 times more.”

And, just to think, for perspective purposes, when the nations of the world met in Paris for COP21 only a few months ago, they talked about keeping global temps below an increase of 2.0C since the start of the industrialization. Meanwhile, the renegade Arctic’s temperature on its own is increasing by 1.0C per decade, blowing the lid off the rest of the planet. The dynamics are complex and very concerning.

Here’s a daunting outcome: “The scary conclusion is that the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS) alone holds up to 1700 Gt of methane in the form of methane hydrates and free gas [in shallow water-gulp!] contained in sediments, of which 50 Gt is ready for abrupt release at any time. The warning signs keep getting stronger,” Three Kinds of Warming in the Arctic, Arctic News, February 26, 2016. For comparison purposes, there is currently 5 Gt of methane in the atmosphere. An abrupt release of 50 Gt would be very, very, very, infinitely abrupt!

Leading researchers, like Peter Wadhams, professor of Ocean Physics and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge for years have repeatedly warned, over and over again, the day will come when the Arctic will be ice-free. That’s when bright red flashing lights and sirens start going off, as the water will be absorbing all but 6% of sunlight. Whereas with its icy cover, the Arctic reflects up to 90% of sunlight back to space, no harm, no foul.

When Dr. Wadhams was asked in an interview if “civilization could withstand a 50-gigaton release of methane,” he answered: “No, I don’t think it can.”

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, “January Arctic sea ice extent was the lowest in the satellite record, attended by unusually high air temperatures over the Arctic Ocean… January 2016 was a remarkably warm month. Air temperatures at the 925 hPa level were more than 6 degrees Celsius (13 degrees Fahrenheit) above average across most of the Arctic Ocean.”

By way of comparison, Venus’s atmosphere is 97% CO2, producing surface temperatures of 864 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s one Hot Tamale! Earth’s atmosphere has a little over 400 ppm CO2 or much, much, much less than 1% of the atmosphere. Still, Earth is already, yes already, heating up with low levels of greenhouse gases as compared to Venus, but if methane (CH4) comes on strong, it traps 100 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 within a 5-year period and 72 times more within a 20-year period. It is an intense climate changer!

The likely upshot of intense climate change, beyond catching humanity with its pants down, is rapid increase in sea levels, flooding coastal cities, embedded droughts, diminishing agricultural production, severe storm activity, and horrific heat throughout the mid latitudes, resulting in panic, illness, and sudden death. The world turns chaotic. Whew! Dismally, more than telltale evidence indicates that this is already happening.

However, it is important to note (for balance) that there is no scientific consensus that an abrupt release of methane is in the cards; rather, it is disputed within the scientific community. Still, it’s the scientists in the field, like Natalia Shakhova, head of the Russia-U.S. Methane Study at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks and the Pacific Oceanological Institute, Far Eastern Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, who travels and works the East Siberian Sea who is most alarmed. Dr. Shakhova and her team have personally witnessed and measured vast plumes of methane erupting from the Arctic sea floor.

It is common knowledge throughout the world that burning fossil fuel is the bad guy, the major cause behind greenhouse gas emissions, like CO2. Therefore, the big push to “keep fossil fuels in the ground and/or divestment.” But, maybe that’s only the tail wagging the dog. Maybe the real culprit, the real target, is neoliberalism, a world order dedicated to profits and private enterprise over and above human welfare and the sanctity of the ecosystem.

With neoliberalism, everything has a price, except for the ecosystem, hmm. Everything turns into a commodity with a specific trading value. Neoliberalism leaves little room for care or concern about anything other than making a buck. It’s what successful commodity trading is all about, calculatingly cold-blooded, emotionless, unimpassioned, and matter-of-fact. But, real life is full of passion!

Neoliberalism preaches cuts in business taxes, free trade (in secret), busting unions and busting unions, privatizing education (for profit… seriously?), cutting pensions to meet austerity measures, shipping America’s middle class jobs offshore to lowly bidders, privatizing prisons (for profit… really?), abolishing regulations, privatizing everything (for profits galore!), militarizing police, demonizing government, overfunding warfare, underfunding welfare, denying climate change and/or pretending to do something (cosmetic) about it, aka COP21, all in the name of neoliberal private enterprise. If this doesn’t sound familiar, then get out of the cave a little more often.

The neoliberal school of thought embraces survival of the fittest tactics. But, hasn’t the world outgrown this kind of nonsense, yet? “Profit for the sake of profits” is a dead end game that ignores and abuses the planet’s one and only ecosystem. With very little surprise, really none whatsoever, the Arctic turns ugly.

Throughout geological history, “Every time we have hit high CO2, we’ve lost the ice caps,” Peter Ward, professor, Dept. of Earth & Space Sciences, University of Washington, Our Future in a World without Ice Caps, 2013 lecture series.

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Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at rlhunziker@gmail.com.

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