Treat yourself to a warm summer cruise over the North Pole when you eventually retire or, alternatively, wait for the Arctic’s weather to come to us, says Jon Herbert.
New evidence from the roof of the world suggests that global warming is almost certainly a key cause of rapid pack-ice melting in the Arctic summer that could have dire consequences for everyone living, working and investing in northern Europe.
It is predicted that, in the not too distant future, the Arctic Ocean could routinely be virtually ice free by August each year.
However, the science is proving to be complex. Little is known about other natural forces linked to a warmer world that might also be behind unusual recent weather, which is creating economic misery.
Perhaps the largest question is whether carbon emissions are involved, and also whether worldwide strategic carbon-reduction programmes can now make a difference.
However, if environmental causes are hard to identify, the economic impacts on the UK are becoming very clear. Persistent rain, long-term denial of vulnerable flood-plain land, drought, unreliable transport networks, social dislocation and wide natural variations experienced in Britain could have their roots in the far north. The question is: how permanent are they likely to be?
Adverse weather can make daily planning difficult for even small firms. Larger decisions, such as the location of new plants and offices, are likely to be significantly influenced by regularly occurring climatic change.
However, not everything is necessarily bad. Some of the medium-term business implications might actually be quite attractive. For example, the shortest sea route for imports from Asia — and exports passing the other way ― is directly over the North Pole.
The giant Ob River has just set a pioneering example. A specially strengthened carrier, designed to carry up to 150,000 cubic metres of liquefied natural gas, left Hammerfest in northern Norway in November, accompanied be a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker.
Before Christmas, they sailed successfully through the Barents Sea, along Russia’s northern coast, and on down through the Bering Sea and into the western Pacific to unload in Japan.
Cutting 20 days — or 40% ― off the traditional Suez Canal route was a crucial cost saving in highly volatile gas markets. Some 19,000 ships used the canal in 2011. Only 40 traversed the Arctic. If the northern ocean remains largely ice free for large, predictable parts of the year, these figures could change.
The good news is that using the polar route produces a much smaller carbon footprint. The bad news is that, if climate change science is correct, rapid Arctic ice melting is one direct result of burning more fossil fuels.
Even worse, growing commercialisation of the wider Arctic region is being partly powered by newly available fossil-fuel reserves only made accessible by the retreating pack ice and permafrost.
Worse still, mineral and energy reserves in the “Wild North” are attracting new investors from an energy-hungry world. Where ice-bound convoys struggled to Murmansk during World War II with military supplies, the neglected Russian Kola Peninsula is now experiencing a warm industrial revival.
To achieve this, a new generation of technologies is being developed that dwarf even innovations in the North Sea. Arctic rigs and production platforms may have to decouple quickly to avoid oncoming icebergs.
This is not without risk. MPs on the Commons all-party Environmental Audit Committee have held an enquiry into protecting the Arctic. They believe that the UK has a moral responsibility to act until a comprehensive package of spillage plans and liability measures can be put into place.
Nevertheless, despite fears over the recent grounding of the Shell Kulluk oil rig in Alaska, the Government has decided not to support a drilling moratorium, which it says is a decision for “Arctic states” to take. It believes that efforts to protect the Arctic environment will be more effective than an outright ban on resource exploitation.
Chill wind from the north
Perhaps the biggest effect that Arctic melting might be having on the UK is much wetter summers, colder winters and huge uncertainty between the two extremes that includes prolonged droughts of the type Britain saw in spring 2012.
Researchers stress that this is a new, developing science that needs much more study. However, weather models around the northern end of the world seem to be changing in ways not predicted by theory.
Ice-loss rates recently recorded by a Norwegian team have been likened to 20 years of CO2 emissions. Last summer’s annual thaw of floating sea ice was the highest in 30 years of satellite monitoring, far greater than anything envisaged even a decade ago.
More alarming still are feedback mechanisms that have been discovered. Melting ice exposes darker sea water that absorbs more solar radiation, heats up and promotes yet more global warming.
In September 2012, Arctic sea ice cover fell below four million km2 (1.54 million square miles) for the first time since records began. Although there will always be winter sea ice, patterns are changing fundamentally. Multi-year ice used to survive for several years. Now, large areas of the Arctic, which has no under-lying land, are virtually ice free in late summer.
This could lead to dramatic changes in wind patterns, surface ocean currents and the west-to-east, high-altitude jet stream that makes much of the UK’s weather. In winter, circulating polar winds that rotate constantly around high northerly latitudes tend to protect Europe from the most severe effects of cold air that would otherwise pour southwards.
The wet northern European summer of 2012 — the second wettest on record ― could be one result of changing air patterns linked to low ice levels. Yet the long-term picture is not clear. To add more confusion, Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen sailed through long, open water leads in 1893 to almost reach the North Pole, even though global warming was not yet a phenomenon.
Greenland also gained its name for being green, inhabited land until Nordic settlers were forced to leave in the 11th century by intense cooling.
What seems to be more important is the overall pattern of freezing and melting. How this affects world climate is only slowly beginning to emerge.
Met Office review
Still more uncertainty is being caused by revised UK Met Office data that suggests global warming may not have increased since 1998. New experimental computer modelling predicts that world temperatures are likely to be 0.43⁰C above the long-term average by 2017, and not 0.54⁰C as previously thought, based on a comparison with average global temperatures between 1971 and 2000.
Although the Met Office continues to forecast significant warming during this century, the newly calculated temperature average is only slightly above that for 1998, when additional warming was attributed to the Pacific Ocean’s El Niño effect.
The new figures have been linked to natural variations in solar activity, ocean movements and temperatures where research is pushing new frontiers.
Meanwhile, joint USA and Chinese studies by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing have independently identified links between increased Arctic ice melting and colder, snowier European, North American and Chinese winters.
They have found that four winters of above-normal snow cover in northern USA, eastern Asia and northern Europe could have a predictive relationship to changes in the Arctic.
The mechanism involved is that warmer sea water reduces the air temperature difference between the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. This reduces the strength of the northern jet stream. Extra Arctic Ocean evaporation also gives polar air a higher water content, which then falls as snow.
Additional non-Arctic forces may also be partly responsible. Another study published in 2011 shows that quite small natural fluctuations in the sun’s radiation can affect winter weather. However, only Arctic ice melting reveals a consistently rising trend, the researchers say.
Further complexities are added by the so-called Arctic Oscillation effect ― a natural air pressure variation that also helps to shape northern weather. Complex oscillations that cycle slowly with far-reaching climatic effects over several decades have been identified in each of the world’s oceans.
Whatever the unfolding complexities and uncertainties, at present, rapid Arctic ice-cover decline seems to be a major cause of more frequent rain, sleet and snow over Britain.
We still have little understanding of how this works, whether the effect will persist, whether other inter-connected mechanisms are involved and whether a sustained reduction in international greenhouse gas emissions will alter the trend.
Last updated on 19/02/2013
First published by Croner-i on 19 February 2013