The arctic melt this summer is unprecedented. By mid-September, it will be worse even than 2007, which saw the Northwest Passage opened for the first time. On August 27, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that the ice pack was a 4.1 million square kilometers, 70,000 square kilometers lower than 2007. There are still about four weeks to go before the ice pack stabilizes and starts to grow, as the days get shorter and the arctic winter sets in.
The reduced size of the ice pack means that more heat enters the water below, raising water temperatures and causing the melt of methane hydrates. This methane is in turn released into the air, causing a further intensification of warming. Already, methane is outgassing from the tundra all across the arctic region. While methane remains in the atmosphere only a few years, it is a powerful greenhouse gas, retaining 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
This, combined with the fact that less ice means that less light and heat is being reflected out into space, means that the collapse of the ice pack could be profound, and it could happen quickly. If this winter does not bring normal temperatures to the arctic, the ice pack’s melt will increase even more next summer, and each year it increases, the problem is going to get worse.
Cyclones are now crossing into the arctic, which used to be an extremely rare event, but now is becoming more common. The wave cause a further breakup of the ice. The last of these events took place on August 5. The more broken up the ice, the faster it melts.
So what does this mean? To oil companies, it’s a good thing. They have plans to drill in newly accessible arctic waters, as there may be trillions of barrels of oil beneath the arctic ocean. But for the rest of us the news is very bad indeed. This is because the circulation of our atmosphere depends on there being a temperature difference between mid and high latitudes. Without that, the jet streams weaken and water cycles, in the form of our ocean currents, are also degraded. The melt is also flooding the North Atlantic and Baffin Bay with fresh water, which is further slowing ocean currents like the Gulf Stream.
We are going to experience things like ‘blocking highs,’ which are high pressure areas that remain in the same place for weeks or months. In my book Nature’s End, published in 1985, I describe the effects of a blocking high on Denver, which becomes essentially unlivable due to pollution. But that was 1985 and this is now. Fortunately, the efforts of the US Government through the Environmental Protection Agency and state governments, mean that there are no American cities that are now in the type of danger described in the book.
This is not true of the rest of the world, though, and places like India, China, Latin America and the Middle East, where there are essentially no pollution controls at all, are not just at jeopardy in a general sense, they are in growing and immediate danger, and that danger could be very, very serious. Cities like Tehran, Beijing and New Delhi are potentially under serious threat if pollution levels should exceed limits beyond which large numbers of people cannot survive.
The two great northern continental landmasses are haunted by another specter, however, which is the twin threat of drought and heat. There could be extraordinary summer droughts, and possibly droughts that extend from Moscow to New York. At the same time, the ‘wobbling’ of the weakened jet stream, caused by weakened ocean currents, could cause much colder and wetter summers in the British Isles, as happened this summer, and to a lesser extent in northern continental countries like Norway, Sweden and Finland. Meanwhile, southern European summers will come to be more like those of the North African desert.
The basic reason for all this warming is extremely simple: As of July of 2012, CO2 levels as recorded by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at their Mauna Loa recording station, had reached 394.4 parts per million. This is 30% more than at the beginning of the 20th Century, and a higher level than in at least the past 700,000 years.
Contrary to some of the fake science on the internet, this reading is not distorted because of volcanism in the Hawaiian Islands. The reason that we know this is that the increases have been steady since readings began in 1958. They do not rise and fall or spike when volcanic activity in the islands rises.
Also, the warming we are experiencing is not due to the sun. In fact, infrared radiation from the sun, which gives us our heat, decreased through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, while Earth’s temperatures steadily increased.
So the question arises, what can we do? There are two keys to reducing CO2 emissions: the first is that we must reduce the amount of coal we burn. There is no such thing as ‘clean coal.’ It is a massive CO2 polluter, pure and simple. The second thing is to increase the efficiency of our motor fleet, so that we burn less fuel and expel less CO2 in the process.
Despite the efforts of various industry and political groups to keep the false debate over global warming going, the United States is doing a creditable job of reducing its emissions. Our industries are switching from coal to gas at a rapid pace, largely because it makes good economic sense. And persistent federal regulation over the past 25 years has, along with marketplace pressures from steadily rising gasoline prices, caused our motor fleet to become steadily more efficient.
To a great extent, Europe has also followed this pattern, with the difference that the movement to gas has been slower due to the fact that so much European gas comes from Russia, which is viewed as a politically unreliable supplier. However, the discovery of large quantities of gas in Poland and in some areas of Northern Europe could improve this picture.
The great problem is China. Chinese industry runs on coal, and subsidized gasoline prices mean that there is no marketplace motive for auto makers to increase the efficiency of the Chinese motor fleet. In addition, poor reporting practices mean that Chinese pollution and CO2 emissions are far higher than government statistics show.
There are substantial gas reserves in the Gobi Desert, but, unlike the US and Western Europe, China lacks the transport infrastructure necessary to move gas from the Gobi into its industrial regions.
Nevertheless, the world’s danger is so great that it would seem essential to do something to reduce Chinese CO2 output. Maybe the only way to do it is to impose high tariffs on Chinese goods, in order to retard their industrial production until they reduce their CO2 emissions. Hopefully, though, that won’t be necessary, and again, the marketplace could be leading the way. This is because a deepening European recession means that fewer Chinese exports are being bought. Already, massive amounts of unsold goods are building up in China, largely because the EU, which is their most important trading partner, is importing less.
Still, the use of coal as a fuel on Planet Earth is no longer a viable large-scale option. The scrubbing of coal smoke can reduce the level of pollutants it emits into the air, but nothing can lower the amount of CO2.
We in the West also need to use our innovative genius, our efficient marketplace and our governments’ ability to provide startup funding, to find and deploy ways of absorbing CO2.
We have to do all of these things. It’s no longer a choice. The global warming debate, which was never real, is causing inaction that is placing billions of lives in peril, and threatening the very survival of civilization. It is threatening each and every one of us. Because we are debating instead of working right now, for example, food prices are going to rise next spring, and there is immediate danger of shortages even in America if next year is another drought year in the US Midwest. Right now, the stock-to-usage ratio of corn is at a record low. If it goes lower, that means actual shortages.
It is time to get past the nonsense, buckle down, and fix this problem–and you know what, a whole lot of people will make a whole lot of money doing it, because, in the end, the marketplace will be where change starts, grows and flourishes.