Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Ice Loss in the Arctic

I've been waiting for the Piomas data on Arctic ice volume for September to appear here so that I could draw a graph.

It appeared today. And here's the graph I wanted to draw (click to enlarge):

In the 1980s, the minimum summer ice volume was a little under 14,700 km³. As is clear from the red plot, 77.8% of this was gone by September 2012.

The trend of this graph is clear: every reasonable extrapolation of the data hits zero well before 2020.

The video below by Peter Sinclair, including footage from the BBC, the American Meteorological Society, NASA and NOAA, puts it into context. The loss is unprecedented in the last two thousand years, possibly much further. 

The main impact is an increase in sunlight absorbed by the oceans, adding yet more energy to the chaotic system we know as the atmosphere, and driving weather systems further away from long-term stable patterns and towards more extreme variability and unpredictability. 

The outcome for the future: more frequent and more severe storms, floods, drought and other meteorological extremes, making it more risky and more expensive to grow crops, making vulnerable people on marginal lands even more vulnerable, reducing the safe area of the world for housing even as populations increase, and so on. I don't think there are any serious climate scientists who would dispute this.

Twenty years ago I wondered what effect a severe climate threat that we as a global community are creating would have on our attitudes, our perception of ourselves as a species and our ethics. Now that it's happening, we can see for ourselves:
  • A minority, including virtually everyone who studies the climate or the biosphere in any scientific depth (science being "what we do to keep us from lying to ourselves"), is deeply affected by what they have come to understand and consistently call for urgent change at the individual, local, corporate, regional and geopolitical levels;
  • An influential minority opt for utter delusion or wilful ignorance, crying foul at those who gather the data and frantically producing vast quantities of anti-climate-science propaganda, to the delight of (and often with the brazen financial support of) stakeholders who feel threatened by the idea of people accepting that it is real;
  • And the vast majority of people on the planet are unable or unwilling to devote much thought or emotional effort to assessing what's going on or reflecting on the implications, either because the information simply isn't available to them, or because they consistently choose style over content and stick to preferences, tribalism and tradition rather than perspective. Or they're too scared to look; or they're too pre-occupied to look; or they've just come to believe that there's nothing else they need to know. After all, who wants to be told that they're lacking in perspective? The idea of dwelling on the big picture probably doesn't look like a great deal of fun to a lot of people.
It's all understandable; but if that's basically how humanity responds in the face of a major crisis, then we're stuffed.

My feeling is that this is only the first stage in a process of growing awareness, and the message of the wilfully ignorant will slowly but surely look more and more ridiculous and be listened to less and less. We'll get there in the end; but it's going to be a bumpy ride. How bumpy depends on what we do with the rest of our lives.

It strikes me that the more we can raise awareness of it in normal social contexts, rather than in polarised debates or in statements by activist organisations or special interest groups, the better. The future will be very different to the present, for all of our everyday lives. Humanity's role in climate change will have to become a topic of everyday conversation and rumination before we'll really start wanting to make the deep changes we need to make in order to begin slowing the destruction.

No government can devote an electorate's resources to fix a crisis and a threat to future generations if the electorate are only peripherally aware of it. And no company can devote funds to acting ethically if their customers only base their choices on cost and quality of the product. Nobody's going to fix this but us – the people – wanting it fixed, and living like we want it fixed.

We're responsible for being aware, for communicating and living according to what we know, and for encouraging others to do so too. Preferably without making it easy for those bent on disagreeing to demonise us. If more of us can do that a bit more, over time we'll get somewhere.

To those who are already devoting their lives to doing just that: thank you. 
To those who want to do more: good luck.


Luce leBeau said...

As long as politicians prefer not to mention issues like overpopulation (for 'freedom of religion as opposed to family planning' reasons?), which I see as the main reason of global warming, we are simply doomed. Period.

Unknown said...

How the field of obstetrics reacted to Semmelweiss in the early 1800s is a reasonably accurate model of our experience with those who refuse to discuss climate change.

Yusuf said...

You know Bob, while I agree with a lot of your comments - they would without a doubt, fall into the category of personal belief and opinion as opposed to fact and verifiable, empirical evidence. The reason I bring this is up is only to illustrate the absolute absurdity of relying on science to answer humanity's most important questions (or even many of our daily, unimportant questions). Science is given way too much praise, credit, and importance in western society. I'll leave it at that for now (hoping to continue should you wish to reply in a comment). Thanks

Bob said...

The graph is verifiable empirical evidence. These are real measurements. I've linked to the source, you can investigate them for yourself.

If you want to know what is going on, then surely the best thing to do is observe carefully, honestly and precisely whatever we can about nature, free from preconceptions, and then to carefully and honestly work out exactly what can be deduced from it.

If you do that, you're doing science. That's all science is.

I've no idea what you think science is, or what you think we should refer to in order to figure out what is happening to our climate.

The only way people have ever made weather forecasts beyond a day or two in advance is by using science, because it's the only way to reliably describe and predict what physical systems do. The only way people have ever made reliable predictions about the changes in the climate over several decades is by using science.

The only way our planet can avoid becoming a massive absolute fucking poverty-stricken disaster is if we can accept what science has been making crystal clear for decades - that we must control our environmental impact.

I'm sorry if you don't like it. The world is complicated - not everybody wants to look honestly and carefully at it. Not everyone wants to be bothered with careful reasoning and long hours of study. Human beings really love their stories and their own versions of reality. You're not alone - there are lots of people who simply can't bear the idea that the people in white coats who dedicate their entire working lives to understanding nature will understand more about nature.

Richard Feynman said "if you don't like it, go somewhere else. To another universe, where the rules are simpler, philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy."

But if you want to pretend there are reliable means of predicting climate events aside from science, that's up to you. I wish there weren't quite so many people on this Earth who insisted on living in an anti-science deluded fantasy land, but that's what human beings are like. They mostly ignore the world out there and believe whatever the hell they please.

Anonymous said...

Yusuf hit a nerve. I think what he might be saying is that your colorful graph only demonstrates that global warming is a fact. However, it doesn't empirically prove jack shit about humanities role.

Sure the green house effect might have something to do with it but the Sun might as well.

What do you propose we do about it? Do you think we can reverse the course or just slow it? By doing what exactly?

I don't think you give ordinary people enough credit for being able to make rational decisions based on logic and reasoning with very little need for proofs.

People know things are heating up but they know there is not a lot they can do about it so they make the very human decision to ignore it and hope for the best. They have been doing this for ages and survived many cataclysms. At some point the human shouts "Damn the torpedoes!" and lives their life and maybe tries to recycle something every once in a while or drive a little less.
Or some make alarmist graphs that prove what we already know.

Humanities ability to steer its destiny is feeble when you consider the geological time we have traveled, with all the hurdles we have had hurled at us and still our lack of ability to understand or do much about nature.

I kinda hope that the cataclysm starts sooner than later because I'd love to have lived during a time that mattered.

Bob said...

Yes, the graph is evidence of warming, not the cause of warming. But evidence of the cause of warming is not hard to find. And no, it's not the sun.

Arguments over whether or not humans are the primary cause and whether our decisions now could have any effect in the future are all over the internet. The arguments don't appear to achieve a great deal for the people who have already made up their mind about their answer. So I don't propose to rehash them here.

Virtually everyone who has spent their lives studying the climate, or the laws of physics, or both, knows what the answers are. There is no controversy about such questions among those who are willing and able to study the subject in depth. I don't know what to say to those who identify themselves with opposing opinions. Identifying with a position - ideology, in other words - is the enemy of science.

Most people who identify with a preferred position aren't even aware that they're doing it - that they've merely chosen an opinion that suits them, based on a few factoids. You have to get yourself out of the way if you want to understand nature.

What I will say, as a matter of opinion, is that anyone who comes out with "I kinda hope that the cataclysm starts sooner than later" must be either pathetically unimaginative or utterly obnoxious! What a completely shitty thing to say.

I guess I shouldn't expect everyone to be intelligent or pleasant. (This is the internet after all.) But I'm still optimistic that there are enough intelligent and pleasant people out there to eventually change things for the better.

Unknown said...

Snow in Egypt Bob! Where's your global warming lie now? It's about solar flare activity not CO2, and HEY!! You seem to have some scientific knowledge, or at least you know how to read. At what point did they change green house gasses from Carbon Monoxide to Carbon Dioxide as the problem? The first one is poison, the second is the breath of life to most life on this planet. Oh, and for your polar ice caps, they are back and with a vengeance [url][/url]

Unknown said...

You're going to have to rework your graft Bob :P Lowest recorded temperature in documented History 135.8 below zero

Unknown said...

Snow in Hawaii! Brr this global warming is turning out to be a real chiller.

Bob said...

I think I'll borrow Peter Sinclair's words to respond to Allen's comments above.

"Most climate denial comes from simple ignorance – people who are genuinely alarmed, embarrassed, and actually pissed, when they find out how they’ve been lied to and for how long.

Then, there’s the sociopaths. People for whom climate denial, science denial, and paranoia politics, are evidence of emotional or organic dysfunction. [For example] the willful ignorance of climate deniers stretching to bend a snowstorm into a refutation of 200 years of physics.

My own theory, based on long observation of the infantile, paranoid, 'you are not the boss of me' strain of libertarianism often expressed by these folks, is that we need to review the way we toilet train children in this country. Something’s gone terribly wrong."

The short answer is fairly straightforward. Take the trouble to understand the subject you're commenting about properly. It's not very hard, if you can bear to stop clinging so pathetically tightly to your ideology. There are lots of very helpful resources on the web.

Mgaak said...

Wow man, thats marvelous work. Im used to debunk people and fanpages on facebook but you took that to the next level. Kudos for your hard work, I think its a duty of educated person to do what we try to do.

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