By David L. Brown
The International Polar Year (a strange name for a two-year $1.2 billion dollar research effort) is ending and according to this article on the Scientific American web site:
Perhaps the biggest finding to come out of the International Polar Year, or IPY, initiative is the discovery that changes to Earth’s climate and environment are happening much more rapidly than scientists working on the groundbreaking studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change initially suspected, officials say.
The studies have confirmed that both the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are in decline, contributing to rising sea levels. We knew that already to a fair degree of certainty. However, the accelerating speed of the melt-down is the thing to watch, since this could lead to feedback and tipping point effects that could project us into a warmer planet far earlier than expected. That could prove disastrous for humanity.
One of the key lessons learned by the IPY is that the North Atlantic is a key actor in Arctic and Antarctic warming. The article points out that this may help climate scientists learn more about what’s going on.
Meanwhile, tundra that has been frozen for thousands of years is thawing, potentially releasing huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) even more potent than carbon dioxide, as well as CO2 itself. Such a massive release of GHG could in itself create a tipping point in which the global temperature could spike upward rapidly, or as Fred Pearce noted in the title of his 2007 book, “With Speed and Violence.” (Read my May 12, 2007 review titled “Experts Fear Climate Tipping Points” at this link.)
Here are details from the SciAm report:
Scientists also say that Arctic permafrost is melting, a worrying sign for officials committed to combating climate change. Results of polar research released just last week show that the average temperature of permafrost found in northern Russia has increased by 1 to 2 degrees Celsius over the past 35 years. The findings match an earlier study of Alaskan permafrost that discovered a temperature rise of about 0.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.
The vast swath of permafrost covering the Arctic Circle is known to hold massive quantities of organic material trapped beneath the permanently frozen ground. Scientists suspect that thawing permafrost will lead to much of this material decaying, releasing an enormous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and exacerbating the greenhouse effect.
The planet is melting, and there isn’t much we can do about it. Despite hopes of beneficial change promised by political campaigns, the odds seem to favor the advent of unpleasant changes in our planet’s environment itself in response to human excesses.