It has taken me longer than I thought to write this. I had wanted to share some of what I learned from our expedition in a way that was constructive and positive, but that’s proven to be a challenge. With what I’ve seen and read this summer, it’s difficult to feel encouraged and upbeat.
After a month of isolation in the Arctic, I returned home to news about North Korea, the pardon of Sheriff Joe, continued Brexit challenges, Guru Singh’s conviction in Delhi and the disturbing story that Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper are no longer friends – who saw that coming?
While these represent significant problems (well almost all of them), there is one that dwarfs all others – global warming. I’ve tried, without success, to think of another issue from the past of similar magnitude. The closest I can come is the influenza pandemic that may have killed up to 60 million people between 1918 – 1919. That was a time when air travel was limited, so entire areas of the earth were unaffected. Unlike that calamity, global warming is currently affecting all 7.5 billion of us that inhabit the earth. And, it’s going to get worse.
For me, one of the more interesting parts of our Arctic journey was spending time with Chris Horvat, a climatologist from Harvard (and a genuinely entertaining fellow). It was the chance to speak with a scientist and have him validate or dismiss what I’ve heard about global warming, and more specifically sea ice. We had a great deal of time to talk because Nares Strait, the area for our journey, was unexpectedly blocked with a chaotic expanse of broken sea ice (possibly related to the thinning of the ice due to warming waters). As a result, we spent many hours together pulling rather than paddling our kayak.
A few things I learned:
The Arctic is warming at 4 to 6 times the rate of the rest of the world. This is because the summer sea ice provides a shield that reflects 85% of the sun’s radiation. When the ice disappears, the water beneath it absorbs more than 90% of that radiation. Why? Because light colors, like ice and snow are more reflective than dark colors, like ocean water. This is what scientist refer to as the albedo effect. The result is that disappearance of Arctic summer sea ice will contribute to the acceleration of the rise in global temperatures.
Summer sea ice in the Arctic has declined – as much as 70% since 1980. In the next 10 to 20 years it will disappear entirely for the first time in human existence. Think about that nugget for a moment. (Indeed, earlier this summer, an Russian oil taker was able to navigate the Northwest Passage and, more recently, a British explorer attempted to sail a small boat to the North Pole.)
My reaction when Chris told me this was, “This is terrible. What can we do to reverse the decline of the ice?”
His response frightened the hell of me. “Nothing,” he replied.
“Nothing” because the carbon we have released through the burning of fossil fuels will remain in the atmosphere for up to 200 years. So even if we could wave a magic wand and immediately eliminate the burning of coal and oil, we would still feel the impact for centuries.
So is there anything we can do to minimize the future impact? Education and awareness are a starting point. While we can’t all spend a month in a kayak with a climate scientist, there are plenty of resources on global warming. Paul Hawken’s recent book Drawdown is a good place to start. It reviews and ranks 100 different actions for addressing global warming. High on the list are switching from fossil fuels to renewables. Although none of the actions discussed is an answer for the disappearing sea ice, all of them will help lessen the impact of global warming over time. More importantly, actions we take as individuals like installing solar panels, purchasing an electric car and eating a more plant based diet send economic and political signals to investors, manufacturers and governments. Hopefully, these signals will soon be strong enough that politicians will begin to listen to scientists, instead of lobbyists.
Meanwhile, 2016 was the hottest year in recorded history.
And 2017 looks like it will be a close second.