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U.S. on Thin Ice in Arctic

This post originally appeared in the National Journal Energy & Environment Expert Blog. The question was, "The summer of 2011 marked the second-lowest ice coverage on record for the Arctic Ocean...Is the U.S. prepared to face this century of change in the Arctic?"

With the climate problem growing more urgent every year, the United States is not well prepared for a changing Arctic, and its continued dependence on fossil fuels only makes the situation more serious. The recent climate science, as explored in WRI’s Climate Science 2009-2010: Major New Discoveries, shows that the Arctic is indeed changing rapidly, with implications for a very different world. For example:

  • Multi-year winter sea ice area decreased by 42 percent between 2005 and 2008, and there was a remarkable thinning of about 0.6 meters in multi-year ice thickness over the same 4-year period. (Kwok et al., Journal of Geophysical Research 2009.) Average thickness of the seasonal ice in midwinter is about 2 meters.

  • Research suggests that we could see a near sea-ice-free Arctic in September (i.e. the month of the year when sea ice cover is lowest) by 2037, much earlier than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested in its Fourth Assessment Report. (Wang and Overland,Geophysical Research Letters 2009.)

  • While the loss of summer sea ice might happen gradually at first, there may be a threshold which, when overreached, risks an abrupt and profound shift to a completely ice-free Arctic. (Eisenman and Wettlaufer 2009.)

  • There is a demonstrated link between Arctic sea ice reduction and warming Arctic near-surface air temperatures, creating a positive feedback with implications for Arctic communities and ecosystems. (Screen and Simmons, Nature 2010.) At the same time, Arctic ice dynamics may be altering dominant seasonal climate patterns in some regions. Melting of sea ice may lead to increased “winter weather” including more snow and colder temperatures in temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. (Francis et al., Geophysical Research Letters 2009; Petoukhov and Semenov, Journal of Geophysical Research 2010.)

Such challenges to the Arctic, and their ricocheting impacts on the rest of the world, are massive and unprecedented. Rather than look toward the “opportunity” of more oil and gas drilling, policymakers should pay more attention to understanding and responding to the risk such impacts pose to society. They must urgently develop clean alternative energy sources to power our economies. That is where the real opportunities lie.

After all, our continued dependence on fossil fuels, with its resultant greenhouse gas emissions, contributes significantly to such dramatic changes in the Arctic and elsewhere. To continue emphasizing exploitation of these resources only risks further exacerbating the challenges highlighted above. The U.S. can best prepare for a changing Arctic by demonstrating leadership on this issue, in particular by proceeding with caution on oil and gas exploration and encouraging other nations to do the same – taking the climate science fully into account.

Read a Q&A with Kelly Levin on the latest Climate Science >>>

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