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A Melting Arctic: Happy News for Mankind

Recent short-term gains in Arctic ice coverage indicate nothing about the eventual state of the Arctic. Answers to the long-term status of the region lie in the realm of a scientific branch known as paleoclimatology. What does it tell us?

The Earth is currently in the geologic epoch known as the Holocene. This began nearly 12,000 years ago when the last ice age (more precisely, the Weichsal glacial) ended. Temperatures warmed, glaciers began to retreat, and the Arctic began to melt. This began what is called an interglacial: a warmer period between glaciation.

We tend to think of the poles as immutable, but geologically speaking, permanent polar ice is a rare phenomenon, comprising less than 10% of history. Icecaps form briefly between interglacials, only to melt as the next one begins — this time around will be no different.

So we know the Arctic will eventually be open water. The only question is how it will affect us.

The language the media uses to describe Arctic melting is usually emotionally loaded. Filled with terms such as “concern”, “desperate”, even “dying” and “doomed”, one would think a living organism was being described. Experts are always quoted as “warning” us, rather than simply speaking — classic propaganda techniques.

Even the scientists themselves have an emotional stake in the argument. After all, when you’ve spent your entire career studying Arctic ice, the possibility of it vanishing is understandably horrifying. But what about the rest of us? Will Arctic melting be good or bad?

Let’s look at the scorecard.

No change in sea level.
Arctic ice, which floats rather than being anchored on bedrock, doesn’t influence sea levels at all. Antarctica and Greenland do, but with one on a long-term cooling trend, and the other melting at the infinitesimal pace of 0.25% per century, there doesn’t seem to be any call for alarm.  Sea level has been rising for thousands of years; the increase over the next century is expected to be less than 1/3 meter.

“Unimaginable” amounts of new resources.
What’s at stake is nothing less than millions of square miles of territory, with some of the richest resources known. 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lie in the region. An ice-free Arctic also means access to other mineral resources, and access to rich new fishing grounds. Analysts have hesitated to put a figure on the total worth.

But that’s not all. Just the ability to safely navigate the region is itself valuable.

The Northwest and Northeast Passages
First navigated in 1905, the famed Northwest Passage allows ships to cross between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Currently this requires a trip through the Panama Canal, a lengthy, expensive voyage that is barred to the largest “post-Panamax” class of ships. The permanent opening of the Northwest Passage will shave thousands of miles off each crossing, saving millions of barrels of diesel fuel annually, boosting trade and cutting shipment costs for a wide variety of imported and exported goods.

Nearly as important, the Northeast Passage is vital for parts of Northern Europe and Russia. First navigated as far back as 1879, a permanent opening will not only reduce shipping costs between Russia and Northern Europe, it will be a boon for thousands of tiny coastal communities that are currently cut off from the outside world for most of each year.

Though the benefits are unmistakable, a certain segment of the population argues we shouldn’t use them.   They believe using the planet’s resources is immoral, even obscene.  But the fact remains that these resources are not just valuable; they’re vital.  The still-growing populations of China and India are now clamoring for access to the same standard of living the western world enjoys.  Granting it to them will require new sources of food, energy, and raw materials.

Russia has already put its foot in the door, claiming some 460,000 square miles of new territory — an area larger than France and Germany combined. With its fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers already surveying, Russia is brushing aside objections over its cavalier acts.

Some have pointed out that Arctic territorial disputes may lead to conflict, even war. This is possible. But claiming that we shouldn’t wish for new resources because we might fight over them is like wishing you won’t win the lottery because you and your spouse might argue over how to spend the money. The unlocking of the Arctic’s resources is a windfall, no matter how you look at it.

What about the Polar Bears?
Recent research indicates that the species is significantly older than first thought, about 120,000 years old. This means polar bears have survived at least one interglacial before, and therefore doesn’t depend on permanent polar ice.

Bears are not the only wildlife in the region. But floating sea ice is not a primary habitat for any species. Many live underneath it, but these are going to benefit dramatically from warmer weather. Higher temperatures equate to more phytoplankton and zooplankton, the base of the pelagic food chain. Measured by total biomass (the sum weight of all living creatures) the northern hemisphere is already seeing increases. That trend should continue.

While it’s not impossible that a few ill-adapted species may go extinct, there is no hard evidence to say it will happen. It’s also no cause for alarm. Climate change regularly results in a certain degree of extinction; indeed is an essential factor in the freeing of ecological niches so that new species may arise.

Feedback Effects
Sea ice reflects more sunlight than open water.  This leads to a positive-feedback effect where decreasing ice leads to further temperature increases.  Sounds scary, right?  It’s not.  The reason is a much stronger negative feedback mechanism from basic thermodynamics. The Stefan-Boltzmann law tells us that radiated energy depends on the fourth power of temperature.  Put simply, even a tiny increase in temperature results in more heat loss.  This explains why past periods in the Earth’s history never led to runaway warming. 

Also, the Arctic just doesn’t get a lot of sunlight to start with.  That’s why it’s so cold there, after all.  What sun it gets is extremely oblique filtered through much more atmosphere due to the high latitude.  While Arctic albedo changes do have an effect, it’s very small, possibly even immeasurable on a global scale.

One fact remains without doubt. The warming of the Arctic will not result in our own extinction, or be anything at all but a tremendous boon to mankind and our civilization. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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