Part 5 of 5: The Melting of the North Pole

The second installment of the IPCC’s 4th Assessment on Climate Change, titled “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability”, was released on April 6, 2007. In recognition of this report, I’m doing a weekly series called “Climate Dangers You May Not Know About“.

1. More Acidic Oceans
2. Drinking Water and Disease
3. Shifts in Lifecycle Timing
4. Drought and Violence
5. The Melting of the North Pole

The North Pole is surrounded by the huge Arctic Ocean. For millennia, that ocean has been covered by ice, but today that sea ice is rapidly melting. We’ve lost about 20 percent of summer sea ice since 1980 – an area equal to Texas, California and Montana combined – and it’s happening faster than we had predicted. The North Pole could be ice-free during summer months well before 2050.

Illustration by Steve Deyo, ©UCAR, based on research by NSIDC and NCAR.

A lot of press attention has been focused on how the loss of sea ice is threatening the polar bear. Much less attention has been paid to global impacts of this melting sea ice.

Sea ice is highly reflective. As it’s replaced with darker, less reflective water, the ocean absorbs more heat from the sun. This sets up a vicious cycle. Melting sea ice means more heat absorbed by the oceans and warmer temperatures, which in turn leads to even more melting and warmer temperatures, and so on. You end up with a runaway train that won’t stop until all the ice is gone and global temperatures are significantly elevated. Clearly that’s not good news.

There’s another consequence that’s good in some ways, but very bad in others. The melting Arctic ice is opening the region to shipping during summer months. As a result, we will have access to a wealth of oil, natural gas, fish, diamonds, and shortcut shipping routes. But these new riches come at a dangerously high price.

The money at stake is so large that countries are arguing about who has rights to what. Canada and Denmark are locked in a battle over a piece of rock at the mouth of the Northwest Passage called Hans Island. Russia and the U.S. also are trying to expand their territory.

Meanwhile, the indigenous people, whose health, safety, food, and lifestyle are already threatened by global warming, face the regular intrusion of ships, with their inevitable oil spills since the routes are still treacherous, through previously pristine waters. There is also the threat of disease as the distribution of flora and fauna shifts and outside visitors increase. (See Impacts of a Warming Arctic: Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment.)

I don’t know about you, but I’m disturbed by this modern "gold rush" to the North Pole while its ecosystems and indigenous communities collapse. I wish that countries would focus their technical prowess on how to reduce carbon emissions, rather than how to build better ice-breaking ships.

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  1. Posted May 11, 2007 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Is there an inventory of the pingos, both on land and submerged, in the Arctic ocean? How much methane do these structures release? How much and how deep does the Arctic ocean need to warm to double the rate of methane release?

  2. Posted June 20, 2008 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    See my blog post on exploiting global exploitation: