A few weeks ago, a yoga instructor of mine announced that she was leaving town for a while because she had “to go check on a volcano.” Of course, this was her way of saying she was heading out to lead retreats in gloriously active parts of the world—Greece, Bali—but I can’t help but recalling now the playful image of one woman travelling across continents to check on a volcano, as Antoine de St-Exupéry’s Little Prince might have done. I like to think I check on the Pacific Ocean in much the same way, though with slightly less flourish. Living mere blocks from its edge, sometimes I’ll trudge across the sand on weeknight evenings and stare for a few minutes. Mostly just to make sure that the Pacific is still there, that the waves are still breaking, that nothing too unusual has washed up on shore. I can hardly call this mundane task serious stewardship, but perhaps it’s environmental caretaking at its most fundamental.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we all had our own slice of the globe’s majestic topography to “check on” every now and again, to dust off any cobwebs, and report back on its state of affairs?
If you’re in the market for a site to go check on annually, I recommend the Arctic sea ice. In fact, if there’s one slice of the earth that we should all check on this summer, it’s the sea ice. There’s a growing subset of scientists who check on the sea ice daily, through the various technologies available to us that spit out statistics on temperature, ice thickness, and rate of melting; this data is used to craft a precise rendering of the Arctic’s ice cap and to model both linear and cyclical trends for further sea ice fluctuations. Most scientists gather this data remotely and begin each summer to paint a picture of how much the sea ice has retreated from its much larger winter coverage, and from the previous summer’s coverage. In other words, now—and until September—is the time when we should really start to care about what’s going on up there. This is the time of year when ice coverage shrinks from seasonal ice to perennial ice, or the thickest ice that sticks around even during the warmest summer months (white and light teal in the image).
It’s become a venerable canary in the coal mine, even a cliché (who hasn’t seen those images of stranded polar bears), to talk of the melting sea ice as a harbinger of a warming climate. But the aerial maps of the Arctic are also some of the most graphic visual examples we have of the evidence a changing climate is leaving behind. And many Arctic specialists have already come out with climate models that show ice-free summers are not too far in the future.
So as scientists are beginning to submit their predictions for 2009’s big melt, it’s time for us to go check on the sea ice.
Of the scientists contributing to Arctic ice predictions, the majority are saying that the sea ice coverage, at its lowest point every September, will be a little more than half of what it was in the mid-1990s (when summer ice coverage hovered around 7.9 million square kilometers) and just a bit more than what it was in 2007, when seasonal climate conditions were just right for a massive ice sheet break-up and coverage was the lowest ever recorded, 4.3 million sq km. Unless Arctic weather circulation patterns this summer go haywire — always a possibility in these volatile times — the sea ice is probably on track to cover just shy of 5 million sq km.
I’ll explain more of the reasons behind all of this, and what it might indicate, in later posts. In the meantime, I have to go check on the Pacific.
Originally posted on The Faster Times, July 13, 2009