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'Uncharted territory' as Arctic sea ice shrinks to new low

We are talking about more than “warning signs” now, or even approaching “tipping points”. Climate change is taking its toll in the here and now and only far-reaching, drastic, emergency measures to cut carbon emissions can even begin to have an impact.

Yet governments around the world are either paralysed and/or increasing the output of coal-fired power stations, intensifying heavily-industrialised agricultural production, drilling new oil fields and building more cars.

All are committed to an unsustainable system of production of goods that put profit margins above environmental considerations. The recession has increased risk-taking and cost cutting is the norm. Health and safety? Forget it, say the ConDems. Too expensive.

The latest evidence about the shrinking of Arctic sea ice is conclusive evidence that waiting for long-term “solutions” based on green technology, solar power, wind power or voluntary, individual reductions in emissions is not going to change the dire predicament we are already in.

The Arctic Ocean is blanketed by sea ice that expands during the Arctic winter, reaching a maximum extent in March. Sea ice retreats during the summer, reaching its minimum extent in mid-September. The shiny white ice reflects light and heat that the ocean would otherwise absorb, keeping the Northern hemisphere cool.

Yesterday, scientists at the Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) reported that sea ice extent has fallen to 3.41 million square kilometres (1.32 million square miles) and is now the lowest summer minimum extent in the satellite record.

“We are now in uncharted territory,” said NSIDC Director Mark Serreze. “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 Arctic used to be dominated by ice that survived through several years. Now the Arctic is increasingly characterised by seasonal ice cover and large areas are now prone to completely melt away in summer. Ice extent has shown a dramatic overall decline over the past thirty years. This year’s minimum will be nearly 50% lower than the 1979 to 2000 average.

This period coincides more or less exactly with the rapid growth in commodity production as the corporate-driven globalisation process took hold. In other words, climate change is unarguably the result of reckless, profit-motivated-and-damn-the-consequences expansion. There’s no escaping the connection between the two.
Even MPs on the Commons environmental audit committee have recognised signs. Their report published today suggest that the ice cap may be at risk of total summer collapse, a view previously discounted by scientists. The MPs warn:

A total collapse would not only lead to further warming of the Arctic, but would be disastrous for its unique ecosystem and wildlife, and may have damaging ramifications for regional and global climate. There are also a number of other tipping points in climate-driven systems in the Arctic that may be approaching with potentially disastrous consequences, such as increased methane emissions from thawing permafrost, runaway melting of the Greenland Ice-sheet and a collapse of the thermo-haline circulation of the Atlantic. These together comprise a wake-up call to reinvigorate efforts to tackle climate change.

Unfortunately, they, like the rest of the political establishment, trade in fine words and are essentially asleep at the wheel. The report limits itself to suggesting that drilling for oil in the region ought to be halted until proper precautions are taken against spills. Talk about missing the point.

The NSIDC’s findings confirm that there is a planetary emergency. Inaction by governments, corporations, the UN and other agencies make them complicit. The global corporatocracy stands indicted and while it remains in place, climate change will accelerate faster and run wild.

Join us on September 27 in London to discuss the eco-crisis and solutions, led off by US senatorial candidate Professor David Schwartzman.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
20 September 2012

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