Over the last month or so, while I’ve been preoccupied with disasters closer to home, a series of alarming articles have wafted across my social media feeds–articles with titles like:
- The Arctic Is Burning!
- The Arctic Is Melting!
- This Was the Hottest July on Record!
Alarmism? No, not at all. We live in alarming times, is all. But it’s high time I got caught up. I’ll catch you up in the process, just in case I’m not the only one who was more or less unavailable for a month or so. Then we can get on with talking about ideas, issues, and events in more detail.
Let me catch us up.
Fire in a Cold Place
The earliest article on the arctic fires I could find dates from July 13th and includes satellite images of smoke and fire taken that day. The article is a little vague as to exactly when the fires had started burning and whether the story was actually about a few large, long-burning fires or many brief, small fires operating, as it were, as a team. But the article did note that the burning has been extreme and is linked to climate change.
For more on the connection between fire and climate, please see my earlier post.
A somewhat later article from The Guardian provides more detail, confirming that the intense fire activity began in June and continued into July. Areas of Alaska, Siberia, and Greenland are involved. All told, it is the worst fire season the region has had in 16 years–which is as far as the satellite record goes back. Before then, it’s hard to know how many wildfires there really were, as the arctic is sparsely settled. The Guardian also confirms that in some areas the peat is burning. Peat, as you may recall, is organic material that doesn’t rot because it is normally waterlogged and highly acidic. The material builds up over thousands of years and represents a major carbon sink. That this stuff is burning is very bad news.
Other articles have covered similar territory over the past few weeks. More recently, NASA has explained why it is using its resources to study arctic fires; among other consequences for ecological function and public health, burning tundra has the potential to dramatically increase climate change. There are two main, and interrelated, mechanisms.
First, and most obviously, burning that peat releases a lot of sequestered carbon. But the other problem is that burning away vegetation and soil exposes the underlying permafrost to warmth, and it starts to melt. Without that ice, the ground can slump badly, and, of more global consequence, the organic matter previously trapped in ice can rot, releasing methane–a very powerful greenhouse gas.
So, on to the next bit of recent bad news.
This summer has broken global heat records, so it’s not surprising that the Arctic sea melted back to its second-smallest extent on record. Now, it’s important to be clear that sea ice is different from land ice. When glaciers melt (and that’s happening, too, of course), the water runs into the ocean and raises sea level. Melting sea ice does not raise sea levels because it was in the sea already. Put some ice in a glass, pour in enough water so the ice can float, and mark the level of the water. Let the ice melt, and you’ll see the water level stays the same. The sea works the same way.
Melting sea ice causes other problems, of course. Most obviously, polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting, but there are other issues. What makes the Arctic ocean distinct from the Atlantic is not geographic separation, but rather the ice, which both provides unique habitat and alters water chemistry and circulation. Without the ice, the Arctic ecosystem will collapse and merge with that of the Atlantic.
For example, the ice forms a substrate on which micro-algae can grow, sequestering carbon. Various animals eat that algae, notably copepods–an important food source for marine mammals. Copepods who don’t get eaten eventually die and sink to the ocean floor, taking their carbon with them. The Altantic has its own micro-algae and its own copepods, of course, but Altantic copepods are smaller and don’t carry as much carbon down to the sea floor.
The important thing to remember is that without sea ice, we’ll have one less ocean than we’re used to. The impact of that will be far-ranging.
This year has not been decisive. We knew the ice was melting before, and a significant amount of ice remains. This year’s heat is simply a reminder of what’s coming.
July was the hottest July on record–and the hottest of any month on record–worldwide. Before that, June was the hottest June on record, globally. The hot weather is the direct cause of the aforementioned melting and the indirect cause of the extensive fires. The heat itself is not caused by climate change; it is climate change.
I’m not saying everything is awful or hopeless–I wrote about hope last week, and Spock is still right. This is simply the world we live in, the context of everything we do. This is why it’s important for us to vote, to advocate, to educate ourselves and each other, and to protest.
Because climate change is real, and it’s not going away until we make it go away.