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Time to listen to the ice scientists about the Arctic death spiral

Time to listen to the ice scientists about the Arctic death spiral thumbnail

Ice scientists are mostly cheerful and pragmatic. Like many other researchers coolly observing the rapid warming of the world, they share a gallows humour and are cautious about entering the political fray.

Not Peter Wadhams. The former director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and professor of ocean physics at Cambridge has spent his scientific life researching the ice world, or the cryosphere, and in just 30 years has seen unimaginable change.

When in 1970 he joined the first of what would be more than 50 polar expeditions, the Arctic sea ice covered around 8m sq km at its September minimum. Today, it hovers at around 3.4m, and is declining by 13% a decade. In 30 years Wadhams has seen the Arctic ice thin by 40%, the world change colour at its top and bottom and the ice disappear in front of his eyes.

In a new book, published just as July 2016 is confirmed by Nasa as the hottest month ever recorded, this most experienced and rational scientist states what so many other researchers privately fear but cannot publicly say – that the Arctic is approaching a death spiral which may see the entire remaining summer ice cover collapse in the near future.

Peter Wadhams
‘Because Peter Wadhams says what other scientists will not, he has been slandered, attacked and vilified by denialists and politicians who have advised caution or non-action.’ Photograph: PR

The warming now being widely experienced worldwide is concentrated in the polar regions and Wadhams says we will shortly have ice-free Arctic Septembers, expanding to four or five months with no ice at all. The inevitable result, he predicts, will be the release of huge plumes of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, accelerating warming even further.

He and other polar experts have moved from being field researchers to being climate change pioneers in the vanguard of the most rapid and drastic change that has taken place on the planet in many thousands of years. This is not just an interesting change happening in a remote part of the world, he says, but a catastrophe for mankind.

“We are taking away the beautiful world of Arctic Ocean sea ice which once protected us from the impacts of climate extremes. We have created an ocean where there was once an ice sheet. It is man’s first major achievement in re-shaping the face of the planet,” he writes.

And, boy, are we seeing extremes. So far this year, the planet’s average temperature has been 1.3C warmer than the late 19th century, and 2016 is virtually certain be the hottest year ever recorded.

Britain and northern Europe may have had average temperatures, but 500 million people in the Middle East and north Africa, along with most of south-east Asia, have experienced droughts and searingly hot days and nights, which are only partly to do with the natural El Niño phenomenon. Meanwhile, China, India and the US have seen some of their longest heatwaves and worst floods in decades, and nearly 100 million people will need food aid in the coming months because of disrupted rainfall patterns.

Mitribah in Kuwait has reported a world record 54C, India and Iran have both recorded their highest ever temperatures, and deadly heatwaves have struck China, the US, Indonesia and New Zealand. We are perilously close to the 1.5C limit of warming that all countries signed up to in Paris last year and on track for a 3C-4C increase which would make much of the world uninhabitable.

Because Wadhams says what other scientists will not, he has been widely slandered, attacked and vilified by denialists and politicians who have advised caution or non-action. But now he returns their fire, exhorting people to counter what he calls “the sewage flow of lies and deceit” emitted by the deniers. Above all, he says, people who study climate change should speak up and be prepared to risk the blighting of their careers and absence of honours.

But he joins other climate researchers to cross lines that the public may still find unacceptable. He wants global action to find new ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and is not afraid of nuclear power – both of which answers can be swallowed – but he also argues for a colossal, global research programme in geo- engineering.

This is the deliberate attempt to reduce warming by the planetary-scale manipulation of weather patterns, oceans, currents, soils and atmosphere to decrease the amount of greenhouses gases.

Spraying sun-reflecting chemicals into the atmosphere, mimicking volcanoes, blocking sunlight and fertilising the oceans with iron filings attracts people who think that technology has all the answers, but it should strike fear into most of the world, which has not been responsible for warming and which has no reason to trust politicians’ or scientists’ further meddling with planetary forces.

How to proceed safely in a warming world without disastrous unintended consequences? The need for truly urgent action is undeniable, but by the time answers have been found to the massive questions of science, engineering and governance that Wadhams agrees need to be solved before geo-engineering on a planetary scale can go ahead, it will be far too late.

Climate change has been caused by ignorance and stupidity and cannot be solved by endorsing more of the same with geo-engineering. The only answer is reducing greenhouse emissions. Fast.


the guardian

18 Comments on "Time to listen to the ice scientists about the Arctic death spiral"

  1. bobinget on Tue, 8th Aug 2017 9:14 am 

    Guardian has this article dated 8/18/16.
    I don’t believe adding the actual publishing date weakens the central argument one bit.

    A glance tells us, the Northern Hemisphere… Arctic
    and Antarctic is where all the action seems to be.

  2. dave thompson on Tue, 8th Aug 2017 12:48 pm 

    Even with all of the alternative clean green technologies people boast of GHG levels have still increased year over year. The burning of FF’s has also only increased.

  3. wildbourgman on Tue, 8th Aug 2017 12:57 pm 

    I imagine if it warms up enough I’d like to go back and work at getting some more oil out of the ground up there.

    I try to look at the bright side.

    One of my main environmental concerns is deforestation in the worlds various rain forest. I wonder what the bright side is to that?

  4. bigtard on Tue, 8th Aug 2017 1:05 pm 

    star trek edge of forever

  5. Go Speed Racer on Tue, 8th Aug 2017 6:38 pm 

    Does this mean I should quit having all
    those tire bonfires, in my backyard?

  6. Shortend on Tue, 8th Aug 2017 9:06 pm 

    Listen? Tell the over 7 billion souls that depend on fossil fuels to keep alive that we need a hair cut….I think not…
    Its coming down the pipe soon enough…
    An overshoot can only last so long..

  7. energy investor on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 12:10 am 

    I am mystified by the claims of a deadly heatwave in New Zealand. Don’t know where these sorts of comments come from?

  8. GregT on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 12:42 am 

    This article is a year old, yet the humans continue to not only add more CO2 into their one and only ever natural environment, they continue to seek even more ways to add to their energy addiction.

    This will not end well for the humans.

  9. Go Speed Racer on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 2:24 am 

    Listening to the Rush Limbaugh show, and
    talking about energy shortage.
    And a radio caller said, if there is an
    energy shortage he will just cut down all
    the trees in his backyard.

    This proves there won’t ever be an energy shortage. Or enough energy will be provided
    by cutting down trees in backyards.

  10. wildbourgman on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 6:27 am 

    One of the problems is the timelines and predictions that people like Al Gore have previously put in place. It makes it look like they are full of BS when things don’t happen to schedule. You also have some folks say “what’s the use”, when we keep getting told we are already doomed for not moving fast enough.

    I feel it’s like many big problems that plague us, we didn’t cause them overnight and we won’t repair them that way either.

  11. onlooker on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 7:21 am 

    It is long past time. The fact that they know now it is in a death spiral means it is a runaway effect. In fact we now have identified a number of feedback mechanisms that have been triggered. In addition, scientists are increasing reporting from their investigations that the climate is more sensitive than previously thought. We are the Wily Coyote having fallen off the cliff but not yet hitting bottom.

  12. Jef on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 7:53 am 

    The reason no country has come even close to Paris agreement emission reductions, the reason Trump is doing all he is doing wrt environment and AGW, is because to actually address these issues in any meaningful way means doing LESS!!! of everything which means economic collapse and no one is prepared to go there.

    And no cloggie the “green economy” is not the answer. The green economy is a sham just like recycling and only leads to more ff use and increased waste stream.

  13. Cloggie on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 8:24 am 

    And no cloggie the “green economy” is not the answer. The green economy is a sham just like recycling and only leads to more ff use and increased waste stream.

    No, it isn’t.

  14. joe on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 10:36 am 

    The earth is like a sponge. It will absorb everything it can until it cant. Ever stand in a bar with smoking allowed? Early on its fine, then more people come in, by 2300 if you don’t like choking, get the hell out. Its the same for planet Trump, eh I mean the car park and corn syrup producing planet once known as earth.

  15. GregT on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 11:28 am 

    The only true green economy, is one where the human race consumes less natural ‘resources’ in a timeframe that they can be replenished by natural processes. We are currently consuming our planet at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can replenish itself. There is nothing sustainable about this at all. Non-renewable resources are a completely different story. They began to be depleted the moment we started consuming them.

    We cannot have a hospitable planet and consume it too. This is a fallacy.

  16. Dredd on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 12:35 pm 

    The Arctic oscillates on its way to a first ice free summer (Artic News).

    That makes it more difficult to figure out when that will take place (When Will The Arctic Sea-ice Be Gone?).

  17. Bloomer on Wed, 9th Aug 2017 11:03 pm 

    The Arctic is the planets air conditioner unit. Once it breaks down, there be no replacing it.

  18. Sissyfuss on Thu, 10th Aug 2017 9:36 am 

    Nailed it, Jef. The cancer will continue to devour the host until the only thing left to consume is itself.

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