Monday, September 24, 2007

Arctic potpourri

An interesting article in LiveScience -- more bad news from the Arctic! Yay!
A new study examining satellite measurements of the winter sea ice covering the Barents Sea (located north of Scandinavia) over the past 26 years has shown that the ice edge has recently been retreating in the face of rising sea surface temperatures, said study leader Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University.

Her research, detailed in a recent issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, showed that the warming waters in the Barents Sea—which have risen about 3 degrees Celsius since 1980—are to blame for the reduction in winter ice cover. Two factors contribute to the warming of the Barents Sea: warming Atlantic waters funneled in by the Gulf Stream and solar heating of the open ocean as ice melts in the summer, both of which make it harder for new ice to form in the winter.
Retreating summer ice is one thing -- retreating winter ice is quite another. Meanwhile, there's some explanation for why the ice has disappeared so quickly the last few years:
Julienne Stroeve of the NSIDC used satellite data that tracked the movement of the sea ice over the last 30 years to estimate the age of the ice—the older the ice, the thicker it is. Newly formed ice (about 1 or 2 years old) will only be about 1 meter thick, whereas ice that is closer to 5 years old will be between 2 and 3 meters thick.

Ice thickness is key to the survival of sea ice, because thinner ice vanishes much faster in the summer than thicker ice.

Stroeve and her colleagues found that while most of the Arctic sea ice in the 1980s was around 5 years old (with some sections even climbing up to 9 or 10 years old), the oldest ice the researchers can find now is only 2 or 3 years old. All the 10-year-old ice has melted away.
Which brings me to the news that world leaders are gathering in New York to discuss global warming. Matthew Yglesias points out the obvious: nothing of substance is going to happen until Bush leaves office. No country in the world is more in need of a better way to bring a government down. But Brian Beutler points out more obviousness: "Al Gore could become president next November..." and the US would still be years away from meaningful change.

Meanwhile, in our little corner of Canada, PM Harper is apparently planning to defend his government against slurs and accusations that he's lying to the Canadian public about his climate change policies. Slurs and accusations, incidentally, coming from within his own government.

Meanwhile, this quote from an American scientists seems as apt as any description of humanity's dilemma in the 21st century:
“We understand the physics behind what’s going on,” Dr. Serreze said. “You can always find some aspect of natural variability that can explain some things. But now it seems patterns that used to help you don’t help as much anymore, and the ones that hurt you hurt you more.”
Positive-feedback loops where harmful behaviour is magnified and beneficial behaviour is minimized. Yes, it describes climate change. But it's also, interestingly enough, one description of the effect drug addiction has on the human brain. When it becomes severe enough -- when an addict has made a total mess of their lives -- the only way to break the cycle is to take someone out of their lives, isolate them for a period of usually more than a month, and help them build new cycles in their brain that don't require whatever substance they were jonesing for.

Comparisons between the North American love of fossil fuels and drug addiction aren't novel, and I don't particularly like the idea that we require a crisis before meaningful political change can happen, but there's a pretty solid psychological and political basis for it.

This is going to be one of those days where I'll be really angry all day, I can tell.

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