We've hit a radically new low: The National Snow and Ice Date Center and NASA has confirmed that the extent of summer Arctic sea ice in 2012 has smashed previous record lows, melting back to cover just 1.32 million square miles as of September 16th. That's 310,000 square miles less than the previous record set five years ago; and, roughly half the size of the annual summer extent from 1979-2000.
Though there is a chance the sea ice may continue shrinking back some, by this time of year the ice generally begins refreezing for the fall and winter.
At a Greenpeace event in New York yesterday on the state of Arctic climate science and the policy responses to this, Professor Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in California said, "this summer we fell off the scale" for ice melting.
Prof Maslowski's calculations show Arctic sea ice declining at a rate of 13% per decade since the late 1970s, with the melting happening more quickly than either the 2007 IPCC models, or those used in the upcoming IPCC report on climate change, anticipated.
Echoing recent sentiments regarding how soon we may see an ice-free summer in the Arctic, Prof Maslowski's charts show that if the current melting trend continues, we're on track for ice-free summers by 2016-2020.
While the decline area of Arctic sea ice is remarkable, Maslowski noted that thinning of ice is taking place at roughly twice the rate of the decline in area—meaning that more and more ice is vulnerable in a given year to melting.
Will We Act to Stop Melting or Simply Try to Exploit It?
As far as the response to all this goes, at the same event, Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo really lays it out starkly:
Today's announcement represents a defining moment in human history. In just over 30 years we have altered the way our planet looks from space, and soon the North Pole may be completely ice-free in summer. Rather than dealing with the root causes of climate change, the current response from our leaders is to watch the ice melt and then divide up the spoils.
I hope that future generations will mark this day as a turning point, when a new spirit of global cooperation emerged to tackle the huge challenges we face. We must work together to protect the Arctic from the effects of climate change and unchecked corporate greed. This is the defining environmental battle of our era.
If you have any doubt that the dominant thinking on the melting Arctic around the world is as Naidoo lays out, add this passage from a recent New York Times article to the contentious plans Shell has gotten the Obama administration to approve:
In August, China sent its first ship across the Arctic to Europe and it is lobbying intensely for permanent observer status on the Arctic Council, the loose international body of eight Arctic nations that develops policy for the region, arguing that it is a “near Arctic state” and proclaiming that the Arctic is “the inherited wealth of all humankind,” in the words of China’s State Oceanic Administration. To promote the council bid and improve relations with Arctic nations, its ministers visited Denmark, Sweden and Iceland this summer, offering lucrative trade deals. High-level diplomats have also visited Greenland, where Chinese companies are investing in a developing mining industry, with proposals to import Chinese work crews for construction.
As far as how we mobilize a public response to all this—and it applies really to all environmental issues—Naidoo offered a poignant example, which I'll paraphrase and truncate a bit: What's Martin Luther King's most famous speech known as? The "I have a dream" speech, not the "I have a nightmare" speech.
I took this to mean that, while it's important to fight the forces that attempt to delay combating climate change for their own corporate financial interests, and it's important to clearly lay out the problem and its seriousness, we also must work simultaneously to create a picture of the world we want to create. We have to create the dream not just point out the nightmare.
In the spirit of that, check out the related links at left for examples of what I consider that dream to be. The nightmare is easy enough to see from the science above: A climate feedback loop kicking in from Arctic ice melting, melting permafrost inland, all of it increasing warming elsewhere, potentially kicking off resource wars in the Arctic and elsewhere, and creating havoc globally. In any case, the big picture solutions are to the left.