Arctic poses new conflict questions

The recent news that the summer ice covering the Arctic Ocean was recorded as being the equal second lowest on record is a reminder that the planet is swiftly heading towards a largely ice-free Arctic in the warmer months.

Most of the scientific establishment predict that the North Pole will be free of ice around the middle of this century: even this assessment of the future may be wide of the mark, a warning outlined in ‘A Farewell Ice: a report from the Arctic’ by Peter Wadhams, Professor Emeritus of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University, and widely regarded as the world’s leading expert on sea-ice.

Furthermore, in 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Change (IPCC) predicted that it would take until the year 2100 to experience ice-free Arctic summers; however, when extreme losses of summer ice were observed in September 2007 and again in 2008, the IPCC models were adjusted. Based on the new observations researchers, Muyin Wang and James Overland, concluded that the Arctic is expected to see ice-free summers by 2037.

Wadhams has visited the polar regions more often than any other living scientist – 50 times since he was on the first ship to circumnavigate the Americas in 1970 – and has a uniquely authoritative perspective on the changes they have undergone and where those changes will lead.

In ‘Farewell to Ice’, Wadhams describes how sea-ice is the ‘canary in the mine’ of planetary climate change as well as how sea-ice forms and the vital role it plays in reflecting solar-heat back into space and providing an ‘air conditioning’ system for the planet. Wadhams also outlines in the book how a series of rapid feed-backs in the Arctic region are accelerating change there more rapidly than almost all scientists – and political authorities – have previously realised, and the dangers of further acceleration are very real.

In an article for Yale University ‘As Arctic Ocean Ice Disappears, The Global Climate Impacts Intensify’ (please see Footnotes below), Wadhams says: ‘Few people understand that the Arctic sea ice “death spiral” represents more than just a major ecological upheaval in the world’s Far North. The decline of Arctic sea ice also has profound global climatic effects, or feedbacks, that are already intensifying global warming and have the potential to destabilize the climate system. Indeed, we are not far from the moment when the feedbacks themselves will be driving the change every bit as much as our continuing emission of billions of tons of carbon dioxide annually.’

Meanwhile, the Wang and Overland study is doubly important because it forms the key research background used by the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center (NOAA) in predicting the future; the NOAA also refers to a paper by Julienne Stroeve et al. ‘Arctic sea ice decline: faster than forecast’.

Clearly the changing time-line of Arctic ice melt has huge geopolitical and geostrategic consequences, not least to reactivate interest in both the Northern Sea Route and North West Passage as well as the vast deposits of hydrocarbon resources in the region. Two questions arise: can we avoid confrontation in the Arctic?  If not, why not ? Jasper Humphreys


‘As Arctic Ocean Ice Disappears, The Global Climate Impacts Intensify’

– ‘A sea-ice free summer Arctic within 30 years?’ Geophysical Research Letters 36, no.7 (April 16, 2009):1, Muyin Wang and James E. Overland

– ‘Arctic sea-ice decline: faster than forecast’, Geophysical Research Letters 36, no.7, Stroeve et. al.


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