So, ice at the North Pole has melted and formed a freshwater lake. Yes, there is a lake at the North Pole. Naturally, the sight of Santa's home all melty has raised concerns about climate change. But, as is the case with most things in the world, there are a couple ways to look at this.
First, Philip Bump at Grist had a good post last year that explained how and why arctic ice melts. Here's a time lapse showing how the ice thaws over time.
Noting that the melting at the North Pole is an annual occurrence, The Atlantic Wire's Eric Levenson puts this annual melt into historical context:
The melting ice caps follow a trend of continually rising temperatures across the globe, and the Northern hemisphere has been particularly affected. Things looked to be slightly reversed this year after an April snow cover that was the 9th highest on record, but May's snow cover ranked the third lowest (dating to 1967), according to The Washington Post, melting almost half of that snow.
The continued heating of the seas and melting ice caps does not bode well for ice cover in the arctic.
It is hard not to be concerned about the sight of a lake at the North Pole, but Alexis Madrigal wants everyone to keep their composure:
This year's sea ice melt is not as bad as last year's record-shattering melt. For much of the season, the sea ice was tracking close to long-term norms, though it had a precipitous decline in July, and is now almost two standard deviations away from the long-term average. Still, Morison said, "that probably has limited connection with the... melt pond."
As a symbol, a lake at the North Pole is compelling. But climate change is a planetary problem, and it's not easy to capture its dynamics in one photograph, no matter how wide-angle the lens.
We've got to keep our eyes on the long-term data where the climate signal emerges from the noise of complex, natural systems.
He's right that the long view is the one to take. Climate hawks would similarly balk if someone looked at the cool temperatures we have in New York today and argue that means global warming isn't a problem. But even taking the long view, the trends are towards less and less ice at the poles.
So what does this mean?
Unfortunately, less ice means more melting. As the sun hits the darker sea water and meltwater, less light is reflected away from Earth and is instead absorbed, heating those waters, which in turn melts more ice. It is a dangerous feedback loop.
Because of sea ice melt, business is capitalizing on the new Arctic shipping routes.
Richard Milne at The Financial Times reports that arctic shipping has quadrupled in recent years:
Arctic shipping is set for a record year, underlining how melting sea ice is raising the prospect of an important new route for trade between Asia and Europe that shaves thousands of kilometres off the trip.
As of Friday, the administrators of the Northern Sea Route (NSR) – which follows the north coast of Russia – had granted permission to 204 ships to sail this year. In 2012, only 46 ships sailed the entire length from Europe to Asia, up from four vessels just two years earlier.
Will Oremus at Slate notes that with the faster route comes greater risks:
For now, the route remains more treacherous than the traditional Asia-Europe passage via the Suez Canal. But as Arctic sea ice continues to recede, it will become increasingly viable during the summer months—especially since it’s a much shorter route. The captain of a Russian icebreaker fleet told the FT that the trip from Kobe or Busan to Rotterdam should be 23 days via the northern passage, versus 33 days via the canal.
One planetary crisis is another man's opportunity. People need their stuff, ya know, and all it took was humanity breaking the arctic to get it to you just a little bit faster.
UPDATE: August 1 - As expected, the North Pool is now back to boring old ice. According to the Huffington Post:
The stunning blue meltwater lake that formed on the Arctic ice disappeared on Monday (July 29), draining through a crack in the underlying ice floe.
As had been mentioned above, meltwater ponds are common this time of year, but researchers are studying when and where they form to learn how they are connected to global warming. That this particular pond has come and gone does not change the underlying crisis of arctic ice melt due to global warming and the geopolitical concerns raised by the newly opened shipping routes. If nothing else, the North Pole Lake helped draw attention to the complex freeze/thaw cycles of the arctic and served as a symbol of the broader climate change crisis affecting the arctic.