The Tipping Point – our not so Frozen Planet

It has been a year since Sir David Attenborough and the BBC set awed us with the fantastic delights and drastic plights of our ‘Frozen Plant’. Despite the attention given to global warming facts, the vital role of the poles in maintaining ocean currents and therefore the climate, the Arctic is facing its greatest threat yet. Record lows of September Arctic sea ice have been recorded once again, with a loss of 500,; constituting a 40% decline in ice cover since records began in 1979.

Yet industries are taking no heed of this and are making a mad dash to exploit the now ice-free reserves of fossil fuels and precious minerals. This proves an interesting decision given that greater exploitation, use of fossil fuels, will only encourage the positive feedback cycle and propel us closer towards a final collapse of Arctic sea ice. One of the world’s leading Polar Ocean Physicists, Professor Peter Wadhams, predicts that this “global disaster” will take place by 2016. In a communication with the Guardian he had this to say:

“Climate change is no longer something we can aim to do something about in a few decades time, we must reduce CO2 emissions and urgently examine other ways of slowing global warming” Professor Peter Wadhams, Cambridge University.

While the removal of all ice from the Arctic appears to some, to be beneficial; allowing transportation across the region to increase, better access to more reserves of oil and gas and larger fishing grounds, these will only be benefits in the short-term. These are outweighed by the huge role that an ice-free Arctic will play in accelerating the global temperature.

Collapse of the Arctic will not only increase global sea levels, but the temperature of the oceans as well; disrupting the deep cold water formation that literally feeds all fisheries throughout the world. It will disrupt the climate dramatically and most importantly will warm the permafrost of the continental shelf. Permafrost is the remaining frozen sediments from the last age, which contain a high percentage of methane. Methane (CH4) is the most potent greenhouse gas. At present it is not as abundant as CO2 in the atmosphere so its impacts have been negligible. The release of large volumes of CH4 from the permafrost as the oceans warm will accelerate the rise in temperatures so much that at this point many climatologists fear global warming will be past the point of no return.

It is important to note that as the rate of the Arctic melting increases and global warming accelerates; the lag between the evidence research scientists can accumulate, in order to reliably predict future affects, and the reality of the near-future becomes greater.

In response to this situation earlier this year the House of Commons, Environmental Audit Committee performed an inquiry into the role the UK government could play. Evidence was taken from members of the public and the scientific community, the comprehensive report entitled “Protecting the Arctic” was released in September.

The report concluded that views on the potential near-future Arctic ice collapse needed to be revised to incorporate new scientific evidence as it would have “damaging ramifications for regional and global climate”. It also recognised the potential disastrous effects that the melting permafrost could have. There was a call to stop the argument for inaction due to a lack of consensus concerning exact timings of tipping points and the need to invigorate the UK’s effort to tackle climate change.

The Committee’s report advised the Government to begin the development of an Arctic Strategy and supports the need for an international environmental sanctuary for the Arctic, akin to the provisions set out in the ‘The Antarctic Treaty’ for the South Pole. This is an encouraging report but the reality is that unless an international agreement is reached swiftly with immediate effect, some of the world’s most niche species (that are a testament of evolution and the tenacity of life) may be irrevocably lost.