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Sea ice melt puts ecosystem in jeopardy

Normally by this time of year the Arctic sea ice summer melt would be over. But it’s still melting at a rate of 100,000 metres per day and by the weekend, middle of next week latest, a larger area than ever before will have thawed. A halt to the melting process is now not expected for several weeks.

Climate change has kicked in with a vengeance, producing dramatic changes that take only a few days to manifest. Pictures from the NASA earth observatory show “an extreme melt event” on the Greenland ice sheet with some degree of melting across its entire surface.

On average in the summer, about half of the surface melts, but this year has seen a dramatic jump. Satellite data shows an estimated 97% of the ice sheet surface thawed at some point in mid-July.

Researcher Son Nghiem of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory first noticed that most of Greenland appeared to have undergone surface melting on July 12. He says: "This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: was this real or was it due to a data error?"

Then other researchers confirmed the findings. It all happened really quickly, with satellite pictures on July 8 showing about 40% of the surface had melted – by July 12, it was 97%. There has been a strong ridge of warm air, a “heat dome”, over Greenland, one of a series since the end of May, each stronger than the one before.

As the ice sheet and sea ice melt, the planet’s air conditioning system is undermined. Ice reflects the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere. Life on earth is not possible without this effect. The functioning of the present ecosystem is thereby put in jeopardy.

This summer has seen extreme weather across the globe. America’s eastern seaboard has suffered ferocious heat and storms, and there is a new dustbowl developing in Texas. In the UK, heavy rains and lack of sunshine have brought flooding and damaged crops. The picture is the same everywhere. Another global food crisis looms, with spiralling prices leaving the poorest to starve.

But not one political leader has commented on what’s happening in the Arctic – not Obama, not Cameron, not Hu Jintao, not Putin. They are variously indifferent, in a rush to exploit the changing conditions or simply tied closely to the fortunes of energy corporations.

Obama is locked in a race to the bottom with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, to see who can offer the coal industry the easiest ride. New mining permits are being handed out to Koch Industries and other coal barons, and approvals made for coal-fired power stations with no commitment to carbon capture and storage.

Russia’s Gazprom is cashing in on the Arctic melt, stepping up oil drilling as is Norway. A Chinese icebreaker just sailed from the Bering Straits to northern Europe opening a new, cheap trade route. China, the biggest coal burner, has just one experimental carbon capture project, proceeding at a snail’s pace and with no evidence that storing CO2 in spent oil or coal seams will work.

There is some progress with carbon capture. A project in Canada is extracting food grade CO2 from flue gas using an organic solvent and feeding it to greenhouse grown plants. All that is left is a carbon free vapour which is safely released into the atmosphere. 

The problem is the same as with all new technologies, including new types of tidal energy generation – it is small scale, experimental and not immediately profitable. So governments and corporations won’t invest to speed up progress. And that exposes the main stumbling block in tackling climate change.

Production for profit, regardless of the consequences, is the main driver of climate change. Only production on a not-for-profit, sustainable basis can unleash the potential that exists both to mitigate the now unavoidable impacts of climate change and reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

That requires a democratic revolution to establish a social system where the majority, organised in local national and global assemblies, plan to meet the needs of everyone on the planet whilst conserving and improving our ecosystem. 

Penny Cole
Environment editor
24 August 2012

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Gerry says:

If this doesn't change the way you think and act, what will?

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