Sunday, 29 September 2013

Bad News for Me and Polar Bears? By Dr. Gerry Goeden

Gerry is a Malaysian based marine ecologist, Research Fellow and Advisor to the National University of Malaysia, and marine consultant to the Andaman Resort, Langkawi.

 Sea ice is disappearing at an alarming rate.

Sea ice scientists working in the Arctic say it's not a question of "if" there will be nearly ice-free summers, but "when." The news is that "when" is sooner than we thought -- before 2050 and possibly within the next decade or two. Using three different modelling techniques they came up with an ice free Arctic by 2020, 2030, or 2050.

James Overland and Muyin Wang, both of NOAA, published their extraordinary results in Geophysical Research Letters April 12, 2013. 

 In another study from the Bjerknes Centre (January14, 2013) it was confirmed that Arctic sea ice is shrinking in both thickness and extent at an alarming rate. Most of this is attributable to human activities that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere; our burning fossil fuel.

 The Arctic may be ice free by 2020.

Sound like bad news for polar bears?  Actually it’s bad news for all of us. I live only a few hundred kilometres from the equator and will be among the hardest hit by this change to the Arctic Ice. Here’s why.

As the ice thins and breaks it is lost through the Fram Strait between Svalbard and Greenland. Last year’s movement of ice through the Fram Strait was huge and the Arctic ice in 2012 was the least on record. 

A paper published in March’s Nature Climate Change by Richard Pearson, lead author and scientist at the American Museum of Natural History's Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, predicts that as the ice goes from the land, wooded areas will increase by as much as 50% in the next few decades. Green forests absorb the sun’s energy rather than reflecting it back into space like ice does. The same is true of the sea; it will also absorb more heat without an icy covering.

Dr. Pearson’s team found that a phenomenon called the albedo effect, based on the Earth’s reflectivity, would have a runaway impact on the greening Arctic and “—extend far beyond the Arctic region”.

As more sunlight is absorbed the temperature increases even further melting yet more ice. This has a positive feedback to an already warming climate: the more vegetation there is the more warming will occur. And higher temperatures mean even more vegetation.

"By incorporating observed relationships between plants and albedo, we show that vegetation distribution shifts will result in an overall positive feedback to climate that is likely to cause greater warming than has previously been predicted," said co-author Scott Goetz, of the Woods Hole Research Center.

What this means is that melting Arctic ice is no longer evidence of a rapidly warming planet; it’s now part of the cause of global warming.

The March Geophysical Research Letters presented the alarming results for a study of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago showing an ice loss of at least 20% and warming of 8 degrees Centigrade by the end of the century.

Lead author Dr Jan Lenaerts of Utrecht University says, "Even if we assume that global warming is not happening quite so fast, it is still highly likely that the ice is going to melt at an alarming rate. The chances of it growing back are very slim."

Scientists say that the pattern of ocean circulation was radically altered in the past when climates were warmer. Ancient warm periods offer insights into future warming. The mid-Pliocene, 3 million years ago, was a period of global warmth that is often considered as an analogue for our future.

 Weather patterns are going to change and storms will be much more powerful

During this past warm period, unusually hot surface conditions existed in the northern hemisphere. Models of the Earth’s energy flow point to radically different weather patterns and ocean currents. The loss of the Arctic sea ice will change the Arctic Ocean and the movement of water on a global scale.

Africa, small islands, and Asian mega-deltas are regions that are likely to be badly affected. Rainfall in much of S.E. Asia will be very much less and many areas will become much drier or deserts including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Borneo. It is estimated that a global rise in temperature of only 1.5-2 °C will bring about the catastrophic extinction of 20-30% of the Earth’s species.


This may seem like an inconvenience to some but to people living in agricultural and subsistence economies throughout the tropics this is bad news. The impact of global warming will be disproportionately large for disadvantaged communities where resources, food, and health are already problems (Environmental Justice, Dec. 2009).

A study by the World Health Organization (WHO, 2009) estimated the effect of climate change on human health to date. Climate change was estimated to have been responsible for 3% of diarrhoea, 3% of malaria, and 3.8% of dengue fever deaths worldwide in 2004. Total attributable mortality was about 0.2% of all deaths in 2004; of these, 85% were child deaths. 

But climate change is only starting. The loss of the Arctic ice cap will catapult the Earth and our society into entirely new situations with new rules. Even a 2 °C rise above the pre-industrial level would be outside the range of temperatures experienced by human civilization. 

In the tropical seas coral reefs and their fisheries simply will not survive the temperature rise. Coral bleaching, which kills coral, occurs with rises of as little as 1 °C above the summer maximum. Without corals the food web of reefs will collapse.

Coral reefs occupy only 0.15% of the oceans and yet support about 25% of its species. We know almost nothing about reefs but believe that they have far reaching effects on the whole of the sea. 

The collapse of these incredibly complex ecosystems will send not a ripple but a ‘tsunami of change’ through the oceans of the world and through Coral Triangle and Pacific Island communities where some 200 million people are sustained by tropical fisheries.

So what will all these people do when the ice melts?

UNESCO predicts that over 100-150 million people in S.E. Asia alone will be displaced through shoreline erosion, rising sea level, drought, and food shortages by 2050.

Can’t we just increase agricultural output?

By 2007 approximately 40% of the world's agricultural land was already seriously degraded. If current trends of soil degradation continue as they are in Africa, underdeveloped countries might be able to feed just 25% of their population by 2025 (based on UNU's Ghana-based Institute for Natural Resources in Africa).

Unprecedented migrations of people due to climate change are likely from rural areas to cities and from developing to more developed countries. It has been argued that environmental degradation in some countries will lead to political and military conflict as resources become scarce (Scott, et al. 2001). Even the simple case of oil reaching $100 a barrel coinciding with drought in 2007 pushed up the prices of grains and meats and caused food riots in 40 countries threatening governments as well as social stability in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean.

 Polar bears may only be the first in a long list of disappearing species

As I sit at my computer and look at images of Polar Bears treading across broken pieces of ice I think of what we have done and wonder what will be their future. Am I watching the curtain call for the bears or am I looking at the preview of an environmental apocalypse that I helped create but now am too foolish to stop?

This report was published 14 June, 2013 in the Epoch Times.

Younger readers might enjoy learning more about marine life through Ocean Adventurer.

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