To the Editor:
The Arctic is melting. Should we care?
The 2019 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s recent report says Arctic summer sea ice was at its second lowest point since satellite observations began in 1979, and that average temperatures for the year ending in September were the second highest since 1900, when record-keeping began.
Arctic ice is normally a huge white shield that reflects incoming solar warming back to space during the long summer days of the midnight sun.
As the shield shrinks, more sunlight penetrates ocean waters. Losing this ice would be the warming equivalent of an extra 25 years of emissions at current rates, pushing us more quickly past the threshold of warming that scientists say could lead to catastrophic damage from more intense heat waves and coastal flooding to extinctions of species and threats to food supplies.
The disappearing sea ice is tied to dramatic shifts in marine life. The sea ice helps create cold patches of water where Arctic fish thrive. Native populations are hit hardest. The worldwide fishing industry may also suffer permanent losses.
Arctic warming is also speeding the thawing of permafrost, the vast layer of plants, animals and microbes that died in Arctic and boreal habitats over hundreds of thousands of years. This thawing releases carbon dioxide and methane, a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide, along with nitrous oxide, a powerful long-lived climate pollutant.
The latest report says thawing permafrost is leaking millions of tons of these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing a feedback loop that will accelerate climate change in unpredictable ways.
Earth’s climate is a complex system which we don’t fully understand. The latest report on Arctic warming tells us that we need to get our polluting habits under control.