From my vantage point, the near-term outlook for our planet is rapidly crystallizing in my mind. Within a year or two or three there will be no sea-ice cover on the Arctic Ocean in September for the first time in about 3 million years. Within a decade or two the Arctic Ocean will be ice-free all-year round. We will lose our snow and ice winter in the northern hemisphere. Our planet is undergoing an abrupt change with very powerful feedbacks propelling us to this much warmer world.
The jet stream airflow that circles our planet is completely changing resulting in ever increasing weather extremes; manifested in greater frequencies, magnitudes, and spatial extent changes in storms. More specifically, the water cycle is rapidly changing with torrential rains in some regions and droughts in others, with a whiplashing occurring between these two conditions in some borderline areas and perpetual stuck conditions in others. Most of these changes are in the northern hemisphere region where the bulk of land mass on the earth is located, although the change in heat transfer to both poles is affected so the southern hemisphere does not escape the extremes of weather.
Apart from damage to infrastructure from the amplified gyrations of extreme weather events, there is an ever increasing disruption to the global food supply which is quickly leading to price volatility and destabilization of marginal governments. As these tipping points in climate become increasingly obvious to the populations of the world as countries, in turn, become directly affected, there will likewise be an abrupt change in public recognition of the extent of the problem. Once this public and political human awakening occurs, there will be a global effort to slash fossil fuel emissions. This will crash the economic markets as it will be obvious that 80% of coal and oil reserves are worthless and must be kept in the ground. Natural gas fracking will be curtailed as the fugitive emissions of methane are a huge accellerant in the rapid warming. Renewable energy will rule the day.
Carbon dioxide levels have recently surpassed 400 ppm. They were this high in the Pliocene about 3 million years ago at a time when the whole Arctic was pretty much forested and there was no sea ice year round in the Arctic Ocean, and sea levels were many meters higher due to extensive Greenland and Antarctica ice melt. In the last few weeks, Obama hosted a high-level scientific meeting at the White House on Arctic warming and sea-ice. The Obama decision on the Keystone XL pipeline is reported to be delayed until after the summer, these events are intimately connected. I would wager heavily that Obama is closely monitoring the collapse of Arctic sea ice. There is no need to spend an additional dollar on more fossil fuel infrastructure if emissions must be slashed and fossil fuel reserves must be undeveloped. Closer to home, the Harper government has put all their political capital in a bat-out-of-hell expansion of the Alberta tar sands and pipelines so a global slashing of emissions will cause them to fall and cause great economic collapse of the resource based Canadian economy as a result. Sixty cent dollar, here we come.
Humans have benefited greatly from a stable climate over the last 10,000 years. This stability has ended; we are in the early stages of abrupt climate change to a much warmer world. We can either band together to deal with the changes or enter into numerous resource wars. One thing is for certain. We have a much better chance of getting through this global turmoil now, in 2013 with a global population of 7 billion, than we would have had it happened in say 2050, with a projected global population of >9 billion. Always look at the bright side of life. And remember, “What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic”. Unlike Las Vegas.
Paul Beckwith is a PhD student with the laboratory for paleoclimatology and climatology, department of geography, University of Ottawa. He teaches second year climatology/meteorology as a part-time professor. His thesis topic is “Abrupt climate change in the past and present.” He holds an M.Sc. in laser physics and a B.Eng. in engineering physics.