After Bali, a warming world on thin ice

After all the histrionics, eventually a roadmap of sorts was agreed at the UN climate conference in Bali. This roadmap first leads to Poznan in Poland in a year’s time, and then on to Copenhagen in late 2009 – that’s the scheduled final destination on the Bali roadmap.

Getting a deal signed here was always going to be hugely problematic. When the world’s superpower sets its face against an issue, as the Bush administration has so firmly done on climate change, in the teeth of overwhelming evidence, dramatic breakthroughs are never on the cards.

That’s too bad, since this climate crisis respects neither politics nor geography. Yes, it is hitting and hurting the poor in the so-called developing world first and hardest, but their problem today is the west’s problem tomorrow. Indeed, the intense, virtually compulsory interconnectedness that globalisation has imposed on the world economy in the last decade or two guarantees the impossibility of any one continent or trading bloc being firewalled against chaos and collapse in a neighbouring bloc.

You only have to watch how a panic can sweep through the world’s stock exchanges in a matter of hours to see how fragile this economic ecosystem is at first hand. Come to think of it, it’s not a bad analogy for natural ecosystems either.

With perfect timing, right in the middle of the Bali negotiations, a group of scientists in the US presented a startling revision of the rate of Arctic melt. Their latest modelling studies strongly suggest northern polar waters could be ice-free in summers by 2013 – that’s just 5-6 years from now.

Previous estimates for the disappearance of the summer ice in the Arctic estimated that it wouldn’t occur until around 2040. The American Geophysical Union meeting was told by Professor Wieslaw Maslowski that previous projections had underestimated the processes now driving ice loss.

Summer melting in 2007 reduced the ice cover to 4.13 million sq km, the smallest ever extent in modern times. The models used by the IPCC to calculate ice loss in the Arctic are now being visibly overtaken by the real rates being actually observed and recorded by scientists on the ground.

This means clearly that the models are too conservative. That’s doubly worrying when you realise that bodies such as the IPCC may be depending on data that the scientists are now telling us is in fact already out of date. The logic of this is that Bali and its successors are being built on sand, as the data continues to shift ominously.

The minimum Arctic ice extent reached in September 2007 shattered the previous record for ice withdrawal set in 2005, of 5.32 million square km. The long-term average minimum, as calculated from 1979 to 2000, is 6.74 million square km. In comparison, 2007 was lower by 2.61 million square km, an area around the size of Texas and Alaska combined, or around 15 times the size of the island of Ireland.

We are seeing, year to year, changes previously only imagined possible over decades or centuries. The so called ice-albedo feedback mechanism is just starting to take hold in the polar regions. As the white ice sheet cover cracks, more open water is exposed.This sharply increases solar energy absorption, thus melting more ice and exposing more open water… and so the process accelerates year by year, until the last of the summer Arctic ice disappears.

And that leaves us all, quite literally, on thin ice.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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