I first wrote about the fate of the Arctic region in April 2008, in the wake of huge melt events in 2005 and September 2007. I returned to the topic in September 2012, a year in which an area of sea ice 41 times larger than the island of Ireland disappeared in late summer, setting off alarm bells globally. The ominous trend has continued, with 2019 tied with 2007 and 2016 as the worst years. And, right on cue, 2020 recorded the second lowest sea ice summer minimum ever. My report below appeared this month in the new climate supplement to the Sunday Times. We won’t truly realise just how much we depend on the Arctic ice cover until it’s gone.
EARLY LAST month, a small metal cylinder was found washed up on the shores of Bloody Foreland in Donegal. It was a time-capsule that had been embedded in the ice at the north pole in August 2018 by the crew of the ice-breaker ‘50 Years of Victory’, with a view to it being uncovered in the distant future by other Arctic explorers.
Instead, in a little over two years, the capsule had broken free from the rapidly melting polar sea ice and drifted over 3,700 kilometres before finally beaching near Gweedore.
This extraordinary incident is a stark reminder both of how dramatically the Arctic is now destabilising, as well as how intimately Ireland is connected by the ocean currents to this seemingly remote and distant region.
The Arctic ocean has been continuously covered in ice for the last 2.7 million years. This long climatic era is now coming to an abrupt end, with profound and far-reaching consequences. The impacts of this epic unfolding event are already being felt across the entire northern hemisphere.
This vast area covers around 20 million square kilometres, which is more than twice the size of the USA. Arctic temperatures have been rising three times faster than the global average, with record-smashing heatwaves sweeping the Arctic Circle in 2019 and again this year.
From January to June this year, much of Siberia was gripped by an intense heatwave, which scientists estimate was made 600 times more likely as a result of global warming. The Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, well inside the Arctic Circle, saw temperatures hit 38º Centigrade this July. This is nearly 5ºC warmer than the hottest temperature ever recorded in Ireland.
The extreme heat has fanned unprecedented wildfires, with more than 14 million hectares of Siberian peatlands burned this year. Scientists have detected ‘zombie’ peat fires from 2019 which continued to smoulder under the snow and ice right through last winter and which, as soon as the ice began to melt last spring, once again burst into flames.
In the Canadian Arctic, scientists discovered that permafrost in the region is thawing out some 70 years earlier than projected. They calculate the area is now warmer than at any time in at least the last 5,000 years. Ominously, this permafrost contains vast amounts of frozen carbon.
Researchers estimate that as much as 240 billion tons of carbon dioxide and methane – both powerful heat-trapping gases – may be released this century as the permafrost continues to thaw. This will accelerate dangerous climate change globally and greatly hamper efforts to stabilise the climate system.
While permafrost melt is a serious concern, equally grave has been the dramatic loss of summer sea ice. Its levels in 2020 were the second lowest ever recorded. Sea ice helps keep the Arctic region cool, while also reflecting up to 80 per cent of incoming sunlight.
As this ice melts, the exposed dark ocean waters absorb up to 90 per cent of sunlight, triggering a self-reinforcing cycle of warmer water melting more ice, leading to further warming and melt. Scientists had warned that the Arctic ocean could be completely ice-free in late summer towards the end of this century. However, revised recent estimates say this may now occur by 2035, or possibly earlier.
This will have a profound impact not just on temperatures, but also on ocean currents and weather systems. While there remains great uncertainty as to how this will play out, renowned climate scientist, Dr James Hansen and colleagues have published some deeply worrying projections.
The giant Greenland ice sheet is also experiencing rapid melt; last year, it lost an estimated one million tons of ice per minute. This vast influx of cold fresh water into the north Atlantic risks shutting down major ocean currents. Paradoxically, this could lead to average temperatures in north western Europe falling by around 5ºC. For Ireland, this would likely result in a climate akin to Newfoundland (which is at a similar latitude, but is not warmed by the Gulf Stream), with several months a year of freezing conditions and regular snowfall.
Worse, Hansen argued that the sudden increase in the temperature gradient between the tropics and the north Atlantic would fuel “super-storms, stronger than any in modern times…all hell would break loose in the north Atlantic and surrounding lands”, he warned.
The great Arctic meltdown portends a radically altered, infinitely more dangerous world.
The outcome of global efforts to sharply cut emissions over the next decade or so will likely decide its future – and ours.
– John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism