Arctic Ice and Change


The Globe&Mail had an interesting article about the latest NASA ice thickness measurements today. Seems they say that the older ice is getting thinner much more rapidly than expected — so even if the coverage looks ok there is much less there.

So far this is not new news. We have been seeing reports of this type of analysis for some time. What was more interesting were the comments — emotional and fully buzzword compliant on both sides. It is the usual conflict between ‘the sky is falling’ and ‘its a global conspiracy on the part of the…(pick your group)’. This is sad and obscures the reality of what is going on.

Change is the only constant — I would submit that the global climate in all of its subtlety is a tad more complicated than is appreciated by any of these groups, especially in public. Not only does one have changes in temperature and moisture in different places but those changes vary which species thrive or die out or move elsewhere. Differences drive the winds, which transport both heat and moisture to different places. This has been going on for billions of years and our brief existence as a scientific species has only seen an infinitesimal slice of it.

We can see that the glaciers that provide water for large parts of the
world are melting back and not being replenished. And in some places
(India and China and parts of the US) they have been pumping ground
water out at an accelerated rate — with the result that wells are
getting deeper and some are running dry. This should be a clue that the
resource is being exhausted. What happens to these people when it runs
out? Is this the result of human activity or natural change or both?
And does the answer really matter as much as developing plans for what
to do with those populations at risk?

There are some things that we can measure — the size of visible glaciers, weather and atmospheric gas content in specific places, sea temperature and so forth. These are a finite number of points in a very large and contiguous space. There are other things that we think we can measure — the amount of oil left underground, for example, based on changes in pumping rates and so forth. We assume that in between our measurements there is a continuum that varies smoothly between the points. This makes it easier to model.

Within the last while there has been much in the press about human-caused global warming, or the great freezeup — pick your poison. The global warming camp has been chanting about carbon footprints and the need to go to renewable resources for our power. So vast tracks of countryside are being despoiled with wind turbines. And quietly, in the background, the utilities are building new natural gas powerplants that run in to be able to step in when the wind fails to keep the grid from collapsing. So no real change in the amount of carbon dioxide being produced, just the locations are changed and we pay more (sigh).

Depending upon which model(s) one chooses to believe, we are past the point of no return, get there in 10 to 20 years or have no reason to worry because the current weather is just normal variations. And of course the policymakers take their own faith-based stances (or is it economic-based?) for or against. Our costs for power and fuels go up. Some places are getting hotter, some wetter, some drier.

So where does this leave us? I think there are two different sets of problems. One problem is related simply to acknowledging that the world is changing and that we must continue to adapt to its changes. If some places are getting to hot and dry or too wet, do we continue to live there and rail against fate? Or do we move the population elsewhere? I suspect that the changing climate will be the driver for the largest human migrations in history. Not the best time to be increasing border security and tightening immigration policies. Wars have begun from less… Who will survive?

The other set of problems is really two — trying to understand why things are changing (beyond the classic ‘because’) and determining what, if anything, we are doing to contribute to it and whether it matters if we change what we do. This is a much harder set of problems in that it requires us to understand a very large and complicated system of systems. I am not convinced, based on the precision of regular weather predictions, that we are anyplace close to being able to do that. Sure, the models are pretty scary. But then 10,000 years or so ago where I live was covered with 1km of ice during the last glacial age. Since this happened a couple of times in the past it may well come again — and I think that the theory was that the arctic becoming ice-free was the start…

But what to do now? Anything? Well, being a fiscal conservative I believe that one should make decisions based on costs and benefits. Most benefit, least cost and so forth. Recalling that back in the 1970s in the fallout of the Oil Embargo lots of businesses saved huge amounts of money just by reducing waste. I am sure that the same rules should apply now. Conservation rather than grandiose schemes to be green at breathtaking costs. Oil is too precious a chemical feedstock to burn — bring on the electric cars and give us back passenger rail service! (Sorry about the loss of vehical maintenance profits and liberal government subsidies to airlines.) Nuclear plants for electricity, stopping those was a mistake — and someone, please look at nuclear waste as an opportunity instead of a hazard (it is that too). Perhaps the energy this stuff will continue to give off for generations is an asset! Similarly, wind is a good if intermittent power source — encourage communities to build their own local power stations supplying the local grid rather than huge, costly farms with expensive distribution systems. Do it to reduce costs for everyone not increase them.

As for the global climate — it will continue to change regardless of what we do. Maybe we are speeding it up, maybe we are slowing it down. I am not sure we can tell beyond the obvious changes in glaciers and weather that has and will have real human consequences. But it will continue to change as the Earth changes and the Sun changes. I don’t think that we will understand any of this at the level to truly control it for many years. (And the widely divergent conclusions from common evidence suggests just how far we are from understanding it now.) Let us put our efforts into living better and more in harmony with our planet — not just here in North America but everywhere.

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