21st February 2017
Peter Wadhams’ book, A Farewell to Ice is a key book on climate change and contains some sobering facts about the state of our planet.
Peter Wadhams is a name that many students of polar geography will be familiar with. He is a polar scientist with over 47 years of experience in the field and has carried out over 50 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. This book explores the impact of rising temperatures on the frozen areas of our planet, with a particular focus on the Arctic, because, “It is in the Arctic that global change appears to be most rapid and drastic” (Pg. 1).
The Arctic is a crucial part of our climate system, as it helps regulate temperature. The ice plays a crucial role in reflecting radiation and keeping temperatures lower than they would otherwise be through the Albedo effect (white sea ice reflects more than the black ocean beneath). To get an idea of just how big a role the Arctic sea ice plays in regulating temperature, Wadhams explains that once the Arctic melts, “The albedo change from the loss of the last 4 million km2 of ice will have the same warming effect on the Earth as the last twenty-five years of carbon dioxide emissions” (Pg. 4). Take a minute to think about that – it is an incredible figure to get our heads round.
What is the Climate?
The climate is defined as the weather conditions in a region over a period of time (often 30 years). Therefore in order to see a change in climate, you will first see a change in weather patterns. If you read a quality newspaper, you will notice increasing weather extremes taking place around the world – physical evidence of our changing climate.
Not a fan of the science stuff? Don’t worry, I will keep this simple. Scientists estimate the safe limit of carbon dioxide is 350ppm (parts per million). Prior to the industrial revolution, we had 280ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Right now we are at 406ppm and the rate of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere each year is around 3ppm.
Around 65 million years ago there was an asteroid impact which wiped out much of life on earth. Wadhams notes that, “The CO2 rise rate was still an order of magnitude lower than the current rate of 3ppm/year. We are injecting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere far faster than any known natural event, even an extreme one like an asteroid impact” (Pg. 28).
Keep in mind that there is a direct correlation between carbon emissions and global temperature increases. So if we are pumping carbon into the atmosphere at a faster rate than ever before, then we can expect global temperatures to rise faster than ever before.
Impacts on the Arctic
Ice extent is so low in the Arctic that, “By the end of 2015 a total of 238 ships had sailed through it. In September 2012 sea ice covered only 3.4 million square kilometres (km2) of the Arctic Ocean’s surface, down from 8 million km2 in the 1970s (Pg. 2).”
Whilst the melting of the Arctic sea ice won’t raise sea levels, it’s white surface plays a crucial role through the albedo affect. To put this in perspective, we have lost 4,600,000km2 of sea ice in just 42 years. Worryingly the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is underestimating Arctic ice warming, as they have failed to update their models with recent data. This is a problem as policymakers may rely on the IPCC for decision-making.
Have you wondered why severe winter weather has hit Europe, North America and parts of Asia in recent years? What we are seeing is a weakening of the jet stream, which would normally confine the cold polar air over the Arctic regions. However, as the jet stream weakens, the polar air is shifting further south. So whilst Europe gets covered in deep snow, the Arctic temperatures actually begin to rise and less ice forms.
Wadhams notes that “The Greenland ice sheet, with its high latitude and huge elevation of 2-3km, always used to be solidly frozen year-round, except for a small amount of melt around the edges….The biggest melt so far was in 2012, when in the period 1-11 July surface melt spread across 97 percent of the surface of the ice sheet” (Pg. 10). Whilst we hope that a disintegration of the entire Greenland ice sheet won’t happen anytime soon, we should remember that the melting of Greenland’s ice will add 7.2m to global sea levels (whereas the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet could add 60m to global sea levels).
So why does the Arctic matter so much? There is a hidden danger in the Arctic that has the potential to trigger rapid climate change in the coming decades.
Rapid Climate Change
There is a real worry that we will pass tipping points in the near future, after which the climate system will enter a self-perpetuating continuous warming cycle, where the earth will continue to warm up and we won’t be able to stop it. A bit like what happened to Venus. The potential cause of this is explained below.
Methane is a greenhouse gas, which is 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat (however, carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for around 100 years, whereas methane only remains for around 10 years). Buried under frozen permafrost on land are methane deposits. Worringly there are also vast quantities of methane buried on the seabed below the Arctic sea ice, known as methane clathyrates. When these methane clathyrates melt, they release methane which then bubbles to the surface and is released into our atmosphere, thereby doing 23 times more damage than carbon dioxide, in terms of trapping heat.
Wadhams refers to a potential catastrophe triggered by largescale releases of methane as one of the most immediate risks facing us as a species, “The amount of methane stored in hydrate deposits in the entire ocean bed is estimated to be more than thirteen times the amount of carbon in the atmosphere and amounts to 10,400 gigatons” (Pg. 122). Wadhams notes that at least 50Gt of methane could be emitted into the atmosphere through this process in the near future, resulting in additional 0.6°C rise in global temperatures. This may not sound like much, but look at the weather extremes taking place around the world. These have occurred with just 1.2°C warming. But a further 0.6°C rapid rise in temperatures, combined with an ice free Arctic and reduced Albedo effect could cause some major shifts in our climate system, leading to runaway climate change.
What about Antarctica?
Wadhams says, “The Arctic amplification and greater Arctic feedbacks mean that, whatever the interactions between Antarctic sea ice and temperate oceans, it will always be the case over the next few decades that the Arctic will be determining the rate of global warming more than the Antarctic. In this sense the Arctic is a driver and the Antarctic can be thought of as a passive trailer in the global warming race to oblivion” (Pg. 170).
For every degree of warming in air temperature, “We add something like 7 percent of extra water vapour content to the atmosphere” (Pg. 109), states Wadhams. Not only is water vapour a greenhouse gas that will further increase the rate of warming but even more crucially, excess water vapour in the atmosphere means more potential for extreme and violent rainfall events. You only need to go onto social media sites to see people sharing pictures of unbelievably powerful storms in recent years. Whilst exciting to marvel at, these events will become more widespread and will have a multitude of unwelcome impacts; think crop destruction and increased food prices, increased flooding, mudslides, travel chaos (trains not running, more traffic on roads, planes delayed), more potholes and damaged car tyres, loss of topsoil which is essential for farming, more pollutants from land being washed into rivers and the sea. Conversely, it’s entirely possible that some regions will receive less rainfall and will therefore be dealing with more intense droughts. One major issue that we will have to deal with will be food production – if more regions become susceptible to extreme rainfall events/hail storms, whilst others become too hot and barren – where will we grow food to sustain our growing population of 7.5 billion people (expected to reach over 9 billion people in the next 33 years)?
As more regions become uninhabitable due to crippling droughts or violent precipitation events (e.g. intense hail storms) that will destroy crops, people will naturally seek to move to find areas where they can grow food to sustain themselves and their families. We have already seen something similar happen in Syria, where due to an intense drought, many farmers were unable to grow crops and instead moved to cities to find work. Due to a lack of jobs and government assistance, violence soon flared. This helped ignite the civil war which still has a stranglehold on the country. Click here to read more.
What concerns me is that we are unable to cope with this first wave of refugees and the fallout has seen voters in many countries favour anti-immigrant candidates. As extreme weather leads to more conflict and more uninhabitable regions, we are going to see immigration spike as hundreds of millions of people seek to move from the Middle East, Africa and low lying areas. I envisage this will take place over the next couple of decades. So if we are overwhelmed with several million refugees now, how will we cope with hundreds of millions of refugees in the future? Where will they go? Who will feed them?
Aid agencies will be overwhelmed (many organisations are already stretched with our present global issues ), so we can’t rely on them for a solution. Could it be that in the future, people are kept out of countries by military force, resulting in millions and millions of deaths?
Current Commitments to Tackle Climate Change
We should be implementing solutions to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to try and return from 406ppm to 350ppm as quickly as possible. Sadly we are still increasing our carbon dioxide emissions by 3ppm per year.
Supposing by some luck that Trump doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement, which commits countries to avoid a 1.5°C rise in temperatures. From an emissions point of view, it means we can only emit 353 gigatons of CO2 to meet this target. There is no guarantee that this will be sufficient to avoid a larger temperature rise, it only gives a 50% chance of avoiding smashing that target. So ideally we need to emit a lot less than 353 gigatons of CO2. The problem we have is that all the existing coal mines, oil wells and gas fields which are currently in operation are expected to produce 942 gigatons of CO2.
As you can see, this is three times more than we can burn to try and limit temperature rises to a supposed ‘safe’ limit. So not only can we not afford to open any new coal mines, gas fields or oil wells, but we have to leave much of the existing resources in the ground.
In my opinion this should be a last resort (or preferably avoided entirely). I am all for planting more trees – but I class this as a form of natural carbon removal, as opposed to geoengineering. Wadhams describes geoengineering options in the book and I will let you explore them for yourself.
Why don’t I know about all of this? It sounds pretty serious after all….
Is smoking cigarettes good or bad for you? Believe it or not, there once used to be a time when this was a genuine question. Tobacco companies once made significant revenue and had an interest in maintaining their sales. The idea that smoking could have adverse health affects, didn’t sit well with their profit forecasts. So they got together and hired think tanks and lobbyists to ‘sow the seeds of doubt’ and question the science as to whether smoking was bad for your health. The lobbyists and think tanks were paid large sums by the tobacco industry to keep up their war on science and question/dispute medical findings, to make it seem to ordinary members of the public that the science wasn’t clear. When in fact the science was crystal clear. Those lobbyists and think tanks did a fantastic job and it took many many years for the science to be accepted, and for people to realise that smoking was harmful.
So what’s this got to do with climate change? Well the fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful industries in the world and oil companies such as Exxon are some of the richest in the world. It has recently emerged that scientists working for those companies realised as early as the 1970s, that burning fossil fuels would result in climate change. Once again, they too realised that their profit forecasts could tumble if the public realised that burning fossil fuels could one day jeopardise the future prospects of their children and grandchildren. And it just so happened that they had a whole bunch of lobbyists and think tanks who were keen to muddy the waters and make the science seem unclear. Want to guess where the oil industry found these think tanks and lobbyists? They poached some from the tobacco industry. If you’re interested to read more about this, I recommend a book called Merchants of Doubt.
Wadhams explains the role these villains have played, “They don’t have to persuade people that climate change is not happening – just sow doubt, and since action to save the world involves effort, cost and discomfort, it is always tempting to latch on to a statement that we don’t really need to do anything at all…The denial movement, which is now estimated to be funded…to the tune of $1 billion per year” (Pg. 199).
Where is Our Resistance?
In order for evil to prosper, all you need is for good people to sit back and do nothing. Looking at the state of the world, there appears to be a lot of good people sitting back and doing nothing. “Saddest of all is the personal paralysis that one sees in society. In the 1960s the young in the West were united in great crusades – against racism, against the Vietnam War – which showed that they really cared about the state of the world. Now, when the stakes are even higher and the need more urgent, they are passive” (Pg. 173). When our leaders fail to do the right thing, it is up to us to make them do the right thing. Think of the suffragette movement, the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement.
I am astounded by the complete lack of political participation of many of my peers in my age group. Many have openly admitted that putting a cross on a ballot paper every 5 years is all they deem necessary, in terms of democratic participation. This just isn’t enough – not in these desperate times. I put climate change above all other issues, but you only need to open up The Guardian to see a plethora of urgent problems which require action. When our politicians choose to do the wrong thing, we must put them back on the right path. In an ideal world they should serve the people who elected them. In reality, many serve the big corporations who helped finance their electoral victories.
“The young are not listening or being inspired to action, and the old are not leading or teaching” (Pg. 174). We need to get out of our isolated technological bubbles and make a stand.
The Worst Part
All we need to do to ensure disaster happens – is to do exactly what we are doing right now. Isn’t that a sobering thought? As Wadhams sums up, “It is the most important problem the world faces…If we don’t solve it, we are finished” (Pg. 206).
What Can I Do?
A lot of documentaries and articles tend to shy away from advice that can actually make a difference, as it involves uncomfortable truths. We are well beyond ‘replacing lightbulbs’ now. To make a genuine difference, this is a list of things which I believe can make an impact:
- Protest/march against ALL new fossil fuel developments (see the ‘Scary Numbers’ section above).
- Reduce our consumption of meat, particularly beef.
- Drive less, or purchase an electric car (assuming that our grid will move away from fossil fuel generation plants).
- Fly less.
- Stop reading tabloids, which present lies as truths and focus on sensationalism as opposed to reality. I can’t emphasise enough the role the media has played in the failure of climate change science communication. Major tabloids to be avoided include The Daily Mail and The Sun. It’s worth noting that The Telegraph has employed climate change sceptics to write columns and I would suggest avoiding this paper too. The BBC has done a really bad job with climate change and I steer away from this source wherever possible.
- Educate yourself – read this book, and others like it.
- Hold politicians to account.
- Hold companies to account.
- Avoid apathy – try turn your depression into anger, or something of equal usefulness. Apathy will not solve this problem.
Syrian civil war ignited by climate change induced drought – http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/03/150302-syria-war-climate-change-drought/
Aid agencies currently overwhelmed – https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/oct/02/humanitarian-system-stretched-to-its-limits-says-new-research
Scary carbon emissions numbers – http://www.ryanmizzen.com/the-carbon-budget-and-the-carbon-bubble/
Tar sands are game over for the climate – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/may/19/tar-sands-exploitation-climate-scientist
Merchants of Doubt book – http://www.merchantsofdoubt.org/
Exxon knew about the link between burning fossil fuels and climate change in the 1970s – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/14/exxons-climate-lie-change-global-warming
My debut children’s picture book, Hedgey-A and the Honey Bees, is about the need to protect bees from pesticide pollution. It can be purchased online here.