Carbon pollution is destabilizing both the Arctic and Antarctic: Rapid warming and disintegrating polar ice sets the stage for ‘societal collapse’

By Joe Romm, cross-posted from Climate Progress, 14 Feb 2017  

A crack in Antarctics’s Larsen C ice shelf has grown sharply in recent months. CREDIT: NASA.

The Arctic and Antarctic are seeing an accelerated collapse of both sea and land ice.

When you add in Trump’s aggressive agenda to undo both domestic and global climate action, we are facing the worst-case scenario for climate change — and one new study finds that the worst case is “societal collapse.”

The unprecedented drop in global sea ice we reported on last month has continued. Arctic sea ice reached a new record low, the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reports.

Compared to the record low set in January 2016, last month’s new record low Arctic sea ice extent was smaller by the size of Wyoming.

Climate models have long predicted that if we keep using the atmosphere as an open sewer for carbon pollution, the ice cap would eventually enter into a death spiral because of Arctic amplification — a vicious cycle where higher temperatures melt reflective white ice and snow, which is replaced by the dark land or blue sea, which both absorb more solar energy, leading to more melting.

That’s why the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the planet. And last week saw another monster Arctic heat wave with temperatures a stunning 50°F (28°C) above normal.

This is the third monster Arctic heat wave this winter. “I’ve been looking at Arctic weather and climate for 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like the warming conditions we’ve been seeing this winter,” NSIDC director Mark Serreze told Inside Climate News earlier this month.

NOAA reported in December that Arctic air temperatures in 2016 were “by far” the highest since 1900. The chart below shows the extreme polar warmth in 2016 (in yellow) and again in 2017 (red).

Air temperatures north of 80 degrees latitude for 2017 (red), compared to 2016 (yellow), and the long-term average (blue). Credit: Zack Labe/ Danish Meteorological Institute

It bears repeating that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. Arctic amplification drives more extreme weather in North America, while accelerating both Greenland ice sheet melt (which causes faster sea level rise) and the defrosting of carbon-rich permafrost (which releases CO2 and methane that each cause faster warming).

At the same time, Antarctica is seeing record loss of sea ice and the land-based ice sheet (which contains enough frozen water to raise sea levels some 200 feet).

A major crack in the Larson C ice shelf “grew 17 miles in the last two months,” the New York Times reported last week. Here’s a close up of the crack:

CREDIT: NASA

Floating ice shelves don’t add to sea level rise directly. But “they buttress land ice and keep it inland,” NASA explains. Therefore, when a shelf becomes destabilized and disintegrates, “glaciers that feed it can flow more quickly out to sea — a process that directly increases sea level.”

Humanity is playing with fire, literally. Fossil fuel combustion and other human activity now overwhelm all of the natural cycles that have driven slow climate changes in the past. According to a new study, we are “causing the climate to change 170 times faster than natural forces.”

If we fail to change course sharply, the study warns we risk “abrupt changes in the Earth System that could trigger societal collapse.”

Tragically, the president has pledged to kill domestic and global climate action, and his team is a den of deniers. If Trump succeeds in destroying the Paris climate deal, the world’s last best hope to sharply slow global warming, then we are headed toward an unbounded worst case scenario for our children and the next 50 generations.



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