Human beings tend to be not too far-sighted, especially when talking about the weather. After months of prolonged droughts (as happened last year in several areas of continental Europe) we began accepting that climate change is happening. After a few days of polar temperatures (as in the severe perturbation now gripping Europe to its southernmost tips) some have started to nurture doubts.
We should look northwards. While merry pictures of a snow-blanketed Vatican City were being broadcasted on every TV on the planet, an ominous thermometer reading was making every climatologist’s blood run cold. A few days ago, at Cape Morris Jesup, the northernmost land outpost in Greenland, the temperature reached 6° Celsius – without a minus sign – and saw a record-breaking 61 hours above freezing.
At the top of the world, there is no doubt left – climate change is palpably happening. Arctic sea ice is at its lowest level on record. During summer, cruise ships can sail unharmed through the famed Northwestern Passage. Greenland is melting at a much faster pace than previously thought. The Big North is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet.
If climatologists have been tweeting messages of disbelief after the Cape Morris Jesup record temperatures, it is because they have a secret fear – that the Arctic’s fever could potentially trigger a non-linear response in the Greenhouse effect one indefinite day. Since the Industrial Revolution, the world has witnessed a linear and parallel increase in CO2 concentrations and mean ground temperatures. Yet it is thought that, above a certain warming threshold, a series of positive feedbacks could destabilise the atmospheric system. They call it ‘runaway climate change’. It is precisely what nobody, including deniers, would ever like to see.
Now, the public do not like to hear about catastrophic climate change – it is not an appropriate subject for a primetime TV show. But what the public do not grasp well is the difference between short-term local meteorology and long-term world climatology. In a nutshell, when talking about the climate, we should far-sightedly look at the whole planet, and on a decadal pace.
Wait, the warm temperatures at Cape Morris Jesup were a local and brief event, thus belonging to meteorology, weren’t they? This is true. However, they also fit into a bigger, scarier picture of climatic irreversibility.
Last year, the sea ice cover had declined so much that NOAA declared in its annual Arctic Report Card that the Arctic would ‘likely never again return to its reliably frozen’ status of the past. With less ice afloat, warm air from the South can penetrate further than it ever did before and drive additional melting. This is a perfect example of a positive feedback – less sea ice cover leads to thinned glaciers.
All that reduced ice cover (both off- and in-land) means a change in colour, thus in the Arctic’s reflectivity of solar radiation, also known as albedo. The lower the albedo, the more heat is retained, which induces more melting. Or, add the freshwater constantly dripping from glaciers over the ocean, thus reducing its salinity and potentially disrupting the unseen marvels of our planetary equilibrium, such as the Gulf Stream that brings warm water from Mexico to Northern Europe. Or, consider the prospect of methane being released from melting permafrost, further accelerating that systematic cycle of warming – another positive feedback loop.
To be more far-sighted, we may just have to look northwards.
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