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Don Paul: U.S. stands alone on arctic climate change

Of the eight northern latitude nations meeting this week on arctic commerce, resources and environmental protection, only the United States would not sign on to an agreement if it included language on climate change in the region.

It is correct the ongoing reduction in sea ice in the Arctic Ocean may result in the eventual development of sea lanes that would have commercial benefits, shortening transit times for freighters and tankers crossing the high latitudes. If and when these sea lanes open, this will not be a matter of small consequence.

However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sign the original draft agreement because it included the reference to climate change. Because of that intransigence, a new shorter agreement excluding “climate change” from the language was substituted to assuage this administration’s political position on both climate change and the Paris agreement, to which all the other participating nations are signatories.

Aside from our isolation on this language issue, some of this goes beyond semantics. As I wrote in August last year, early climate models accurately made the call on arctic warming early in the game, in the 1980s.

Unlike Antarctica, which has a vast, rocky continent underlying most of its ice, the Arctic Ocean is just that … an ocean. When its ice diminishes in volume, its highly reflective white surface transitions over to an absorptive dark blue surface. The shrinking ice and its reflective capacity, called albedo, becomes a net heat-absorbing sink when it turns to liquid.

Physicists and their models were able to make the comparatively simple prediction the arctic would warm considerably faster than any other global region. The Arctic Ocean would be absorbing drastically more solar energy compared to its earlier state of dominant reflective snow and ice cover for more of the year, covering more of the ocean. This forecast has been fully verified. In fact, the melting rate of Arctic Ocean  ice has exceeded earlier predictions. It’s not quite “linear,” in that some years there has been more ice loss than others. The trend of mean sea ice loss, however, is inexorable and irrefutable.

This climate.nasa.gov link illustrates, especially in the satellite imagery animation, the documented ice loss.

Not only is the coverage of ice diminishing, with a longer melt season, but the shorter freeze season and warmer arctic winters mean thinner ice forms when freezing occurs. The thinner ice more readily melts, of course. The feedback cycle continues to accelerate.

Yes, the opening of new sea lanes may be a positive development for international commerce and trade. (Although the U.S. has legitimate concerns over potentially hostile powers such as Russia and China trying to leverage these lanes to their dominant interests. Conceivably, that might raise the specter of friction and risk of conflict in decades to come.)

In the meantime, the United States' refusal to sign on to an agreement that includes climate change in its text is a matter of concern to scientists in many disciplines, and even to our Navy planners who proceed on the basis of evidence-based science. None of this potential for new sea lanes would be there without arctic warming. It not only involves climate change. It is climate change.

Whether or not the Trump administration engages in denial doesn’t change the proven and documented processes. But if we engage in cherry-picking impacts to our benefit and largely ignoring the negative impacts, one could argue we will do less to mitigate the resulting problems, at least on our part.

What are some of the problems? Melting sea ice does not contribute to rising sea levels. But warming ocean waters do, since water expands in volume as it warms. Moreover, the warming in Greenland has produced a large loss of ice mass from its ice cap, which contributes to sea levels. This is despite a more recent trend of one Greenland glacier slowing in its melt rate due to cold deep ocean waters temporarily upwelling near the edge of the glacier. Overall, the loss of Greenland ice mass is well documented.

The warming in the arctic appears to have another impact. Some of the record warmth in large portions of the arctic has lessened the temperature contrast between the polar latitudes and the mid-latitudes. When this contrast lessens, the polar jet stream lessens/weakens in velocity, making it more prone to blocking and buckling. Blocking in the winter months, with reduced west-to-east areas of low and high pressure, allows a weaker polar vortex to “buckle” southward, delivering periods of harsh winter weather. In warmer months, the weakened flow aloft linked to the arctic warming and increased blocking has already led to well-forecast slowdowns for hurricanes Harvey and Florence, and the resultant disastrous flooding. The models factor in this increased prevalence of blocking.

 

Even as I write this article, a blocking ridge of high pressure over Greenland is forcing the weakened jet stream to sag south to near the northern tier of the United States (see image, left). This pattern will allow our temperatures to remain below average most (not all) days in the next couple of weeks.

Administration denial of the obvious creates diplomatic issues. But it also retards the planning and actions all nations need to consider in slowing the mean global warming. On the face of it, it diminishes our nation to some extent to deny the proven and observed evidence. Accepting simple language of climate change doesn’t change the potential benefits of developing new commercial sea routes, none of which would be occurring without climate change.

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