Shattered Ice and Climate Change

Posted on April 2, 2013


beaufort_cracking NASAPerhaps you heard about the cracks in the sea ice in the Beaufort Sea?  They are fairly spectacular, and the question fairly arises, What does it mean?

Well, in one sense it doesn’t really signify much, in that the forces which created the cracks are ones which circulate around in the Arctic system, and have done for a long time, and don’t herald any changes that we have to worry about.  Winds and currents and storms and such.  Business as usual, and all’s well with that.

But that doesn’t address how very large scale and spectacular an event this is.  Scientists are shaking their heads.  The forces that caused it are forces that the Arctic specialists know about, but they’ve never seen them have quite this affect before.

There’s the rub.  There’s where the concern comes in.  That’s why we don’t want to see what we’re seeing.  Because the problem is with the ice itself.  The forces acting on the ice are much the same, but the ice is thinner.  As compared to previous times, as compared to five years ago even, there is much less multi-year ice which is thicker and much more able to maintain its integrity.  The ice shattering in the Beaufort Sea is mostly single year ice, ice freshly formed this winter past, and it’s thin and fragile.

beaufort_2 NASAThus the spectacular and disturbing pictures.

We should be disturbed by these pictures because they represent the situation for all of us living here at this particular time in history.  Climate change made the ice thin.  Climate change is starting to defrost the Arctic permafrost, which is like the fire in our house spreading to the room where we keep the gasoline.  Climate change is bringing us storms, fires, droughts, floods and crop failures—and threatens worse.

Our situation is fragile.  Unlike ice floating in the Beaufort sea, we are not at the mercy of things we can do nothing about.  We can act.  We can pass taxes.  We can eat fewer takeout cheeseburgers.  We can build rapid transit and make it free to ride.  We can convert to sun and wind energy.  We can cease entirely exploiting new sources of fossil fuels.

To get out of the fix we’ve created for ourselves, we may have to all of these things and other things that are not on the list.

But if humanity fails to act, fails to cold-turkey its addiction to fossil fuels, fails to protect its forests and oceans, and fails to do it with all due dispatch, then our fate is as shattered as the ice on the Beaufort Sea.

The ice is thin past the chance of safety already.


Photos from NASA Earth Observatory.