Arctic ice cover is reducing, how this will affect the climate and hope for the future

There is depressing news that the Arctic sea ice has now fallen to its second lowest level since satellites records began in 1978. The lowest level was recorded in September 2007 and it is now possible that 2008 will see that dismal record broken. Even if the sea ice cover falls below last years level by September that in itself not what gives cause for concern.


What really matters is the trend of the ice cover. This century summer ice coverage has been less than the average of the previous 22 years, and that trend is worrying.


I do not want to alarm you, but the area of ice that is covered in the Arctic summer is significant in climate terms. Being white, ice reflects radiation from the sun back into the atmosphere. This reflection of radiation – which when it strikes a body causes friction which is heat, is an important part of the planet’s complex system of climate regulation.


Less ice means more sea water. Sea water, being blue absorbs more radiation than ice causing the planet to warm because in effect less heat is being reflected into space. In the Arctic the level of ice cover in winter does not affect the reflection of radiation because the Arctic is mainly in night in the winter and direct or diffuse radiation does not hit the Arctic region.


Some researchers think that as levels of summer ice decrease it could trigger a tipping point in the climate, accelerating global warming even more rapidly. Even though air temperatures this year so far have been marginally cooler than last year the ice in summer in the Arctic is still shrinking. The planet may have reached the peak of the climate change rollercoaster and it may be a fast and unpleasant ride from now on. It may possibly be a ride that we cannot live through.


No one really knows for sure, but all the evidence seems to suggest, when taken as a whole that the climate is warming up at a faster rate than ever before and that the cause of the warming is the effect of human activity. People could of course be wrong about it, but every month more evidence seems to pile up and evidence to the contrary is slowly being shown to be inaccurate.


The best and fondest hope is that the scientists are wrong, terribly wrong. Then things like renewable energy become simply a matter of long term planning to be able to handle the time when the fossil fuel runs out, or a way to reduce dependence on unfriendly fuel suppliers and gain some energy independence or a way to stop polluting the air with cancerous particulates.


But if the majority of scientists are right – what then. Do we resign ourselves to deprivation, becoming a less successful species or even to extinction against the core genetic programming of every homo sapiens?


But humans are strong, clever and ingenious although not always wise. As a species we have prospered through plagues and famine and wars and disease. There are now many more of us living than ever before, and even though many of them live in desperate poverty, for most they are safer and healthier than they have ever been.


We will not give up. We will have to work hard to maintain the complex balance of climate that we need. There is a huge range of temperature that we know of. At the lowest end of known temperature is absolute zero, −273.15 °Celsius or 0 Kelvin. Max Planck seemed to think that the hottest temperature possible is 100, million, million, million, million, degrees, or 1032 Kelvin.


Humans and most animals have to live between a tiny fraction – the width of a cigarette paper – between those absolutes. Even a rise of fall in average temperatures in any region of three degrees Celsius would provide us with many changes and many problems, with basic necessities of live – food and water.


So the challenge ahead may be hard but I do not think it is insoluble. So far humans have already solved many problems that were thought to be beyond them. We can cure many diseases. We can fly in large heavy aircraft. We can communicate to billions through the very media and processes through which you are reading these words.


If we can do these things and many more that were beyond the imagination of people just eight generations ago, we should find a way through climate difficulties. The starting point is recognising the danger and the risks and using all the resources we have now to minimise them. Everything else that we will need, inventions, improvements, will follow on, but the first step is to genuinely recognise the problem and start addressing it with all the tools that we have now.

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