It is the last week of October and the main nursery for the new sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has yet to begin to freeze. No wonder, since 2020 is on its way to being the second hottest year on record, but it’s still a matter of concern. It should have started freezing again about five weeks ago.
Historically, the Arctic Ocean freezes to its edges (the northern coasts of Canada, Greenland, Russia and Alaska) each winter – 14 million km2. of ice – then melt to about half that area over the following summer. Not this year.
The summer melt season ended on September 15, with just over a quarter of the winter ice remaining (3.74 million km2). This is the second lowest on record, but normally the ice cover would have started to expand again immediately. This year, no.
The ice edge in northern Scandinavia and European Russia remained where it was, and the ice in the Laptev Sea (north of central Siberia) actually retreated further north. It will likely start to refreeze soon now, but it has already sounded the alarm bells throughout the scientific community.
However, this makes the maritime community very happy. A 2019 conference of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) International Transport Forum gleefully discussed the prospect of ice shrinking and thinning so rapidly that ships may soon be able to cross directly the Arctic Ocean rather than crawling around the edges.
If the sea ice disappears completely for even one year, in all subsequent years the old, thick, multi-year ice will be gone. At worst, ships would only have to make their way through new thin single-year ice even at the North Pole, so there would be no need for an icebreaker even in winter. . Hooray!
These foolish people shouldn’t hug each other with pleasure. They should shiver with fear, because an ice-free Arctic Ocean could be an event big enough to tip the global climate into much faster and irreversible warming. This is what we really need to be afraid of: the sudden swerve, the “non-linear change” that plunges us into a world of suffering.
Arctic sea ice, which again covers half the land area of the United States in winter, is like a giant mirror reflecting the sun’s heat back into space. Replace it with free water that absorbs the sun’s rays, and you’ve created a giant new engine of global warming that you can’t turn off.
It could happen next year, it might not happen for 20 years, but the train has already left the station. It’s the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the warming, but no reduction in emissions will stop it now: there is already enough CO2 in the air to melt all sea ice for the foreseeable future.
It would be catastrophic, so some climatologists are now seriously considering the logical next step. The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the planet, so Dr Hugh Hunt of the Center for Climate Repair at the University of Cambridge is ready to take this step.
“Three years ago, if you’d asked me, I would have said I hope we don’t care about this geoengineering shit.” This is not what you would like to do, but now I don’t see this predicament in any other direction anymore. I really hope we do a proper government funded job on how these geoengineering techniques work, because while eggs are eggs, we will have to do them.
Reluctantly, Hunt would now be prepared to consider putting an aerosol (likely sulfur dioxide) in the stratosphere above the Arctic Ocean to reflect enough incoming sunlight to keep the local temperature down. It would be less of a challenge technically than doing it elsewhere, as the stratosphere above the Arctic is only half the height of the equator and existing aircraft could send the aerosol.
He knows there are many questions that need to be answered before this is done. Are the effects of the aerosol limited to the arctic region? Otherwise, you would need the consent of the entire planet to do so, not just the eight members of the Arctic Council (who would likely be in favor if that was for sure, as they definitely have a dog in this fight).
But if the research indicated it was safe, Hugh Hunt would be up to it. “There is something to be said for putting the Arctic into freezing mode a little more each winter than it melts in the summer. Maybe a little bit of stratospheric aerosol injection could push it in the right direction.
He is not alone in this judgment. The alternative is probably much worse.