16 August 2007

Polar heat

Lots of things happening up in the Arctic. Big changes are afoot, in both the planet and in our politics and these are manifesting themselves there. Climate change is reducing the amount of sea ice and consequently opening opportunities for access to new territory and resources.

First, the melting ice. From the National Snow and Ice Data Center:

Sea ice extent is currently tracking at 5.4 million square kilometers (2.1 million square miles), with daily extents running at 940,000 square kilometers (361,000 square miles) below previous daily record lows, a significant decline from past years.

The image shows the extent of sea ice compared to the median position. The ice is quite shrunken on the Alaska-Russia side of the Arctic. The Figures 3 and 4 on the page show the high pressure and warm temperatures which are manifest over the area. In general, the last several years have been generally warmer than average over Alaska. There was quite extensive wildfire activity there in 2004, indicative of the heat. That is certainly broadly consistent with the idea of global warming and climate change. It could also be associated with interdecadal variability.

Some problems with melting ice in the north include the threat to polar bears, the migration of so-called pest species and the introduction of new insects and disease into the region. For more discussion of possible impacts, see here.

When trying to understand and predict what is happening, we should remember that we have never observed (with contemporary observations and theory) climate change of this magnitude. We can't predict either what will happen or how it will happen with any certainty or detail. Our climate models can only give us a broad picture of what will happen. The history of science suggests that we should expect surprises and new insights. We usually do when we make new observations.

On the geopolitical side of things, tension is building over a new 'land rush' for the North Pole. (Sorry, haven't saved the links here...) Russia made a claim by planting a little metal flag on the sea floor at the pole. The US and Canada have responded, indicating that such a claim is not likely to stand. Denmark is also staking a claim, acting through Greenland (which it controls), who rightfully have interests in the area.

That governments are responding to the issue should indicate the seriousness of the problems facing humanity, including climate change and peak oil. If the governments are moving on an issue, even the most hardcore skeptics must see that there is something to it. Rather than basing their judgments on ideology, they are using an honest assessment of the facts and acting on a forward thinking strategy. As a society we should move towards adopting a similar mindset, as planning and forethought are the only ways out of our mess.

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