The Dead Canary

graph of declining sea ice

The decline in the volume of arctic sea ice, which has accelerated in recent years.

The graph above shows the decline in the volume (total mass) of sea ice in the Arctic over the last 30 years.  Prior to this that volume tended to be around 15,000 cubic kilometers, which is a lot of ice, even by Minnesota standards.  If this precipitous decline continues, the arctic could be ice free by September 2015.  There’s a 1 in 20 chance it might actually be ice free by next summer.

The arctic has been seen as the most sensitive region when it come to climate change, akin to the canary in the coal mine, and thus of particular concern and study by the scientific community.  The Antarctic, which has actually seen a slight increase in sea ice of late, is much less sensitive (in part because it is so much colder and there is so much more ice there), although scientists are observing changes in wind and ice patterns that indicate that climate change is having an impact there too.  But if we want to get a sense of how much effect pumping a few billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has on our planet, the direction to look first is northward.

Predictions just seven years ago from Arctic Climate Impact Assessment were that the Arctic would be ice free by “late in this century.”  I remember showing students slides of what the arctic would look like in 2080, with barely any ice left, and what a shock that was.  A planet radically changed. Now, if the trend show in the graph above continues, we’ll be there, not by the time of my great-grandson’s graduation from high school, but my son’s.

This is but one indicator of many, and we know the climate and weather are incredibly complex.  No one can claim to know for sure what is happening here, or what the future holds.  Humility is certainly the order of the day when thinking about patterns on this global scale.  Maybe this is a fluke and we’ll soon realize that the “relentless working of things” will bring these dynamics back into some kind of balance.  The same, of course could be said when a canary drops dead in a mine.

The miners might claim, like Monty Python’s infamous pet shop owner, that it’s not dead, but sleeping, or pining for the fields.  Some skeptical miners might argue that the bird died of natural causes, perhaps an avian heart attack on account of an overly rich diet of sunflower seeds.  The possibilities are endless.  But it might also just happen to be because of a lack of oxygen in the mine shaft and that is time to make like sheep and get the flock out of there.

In looking at the latest figures about the amount of ice left at the north pole I have been struck by the contrast between what this data is saying and the complete lack of mention of climate change in the current election season.  Humans, particularly Americans, seem to need some brutally tangible and visceral evidence before they respond to a problem.  We are pretty myopic when it comes to this kind of thing (other countries, like Germany and Denmark, seem to have much better long-range vision than us).  For the American electorate however, apparently it will take more than some remote development to spur the kind of outrage that can only be elicited now by a 25-cent rise in gasoline prices.

We will eventually experience some “Pearl Harbor moment,” that spurs us to action.  Once we realize there is a problem, then we’re very good at getting to work.  There is already lots of great work being done and all sorts of new technologies that we can use to help transition away from the fossil-fuel-based system we now have.  Unfortunately it always seems that we have to have that attack or crisis or disaster first, and then respond (even if, as with both Pearl Harbor and 9/11, we had some good evidence ahead of time that it was coming).  It is the job of anyone who can understand the implications of the above graph to try to increase the public awareness of the potential seriousness of what this means.  The faster we can shift our economy away from fossil fuels, the less we will lose in terms of arable land, coastline, floodplain, or endangered species.  How much agricultural productivity we will lose remains unknown. How much heat-related health problems, forest fires, and tropical diseases increase is likewise entirely certain.  But, falling in a smoothly curved arc, the canary is just about to hit the bottom of the cage, and to you other miners out there, I’d say it’s time to start moving, in a calm and orderly fashion, toward the exit.