Another day, another scientific analysis revealing our unstoppable impact on planet Earth. Arctic sea ice coverage peaked at 14.52 million square miles this year, a wintertime low since our satellites began monitoring sea ice extent in 1979. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The wintertime Arctic sea ice extent has been shrinking for years — in fact, the 13 puniest winter ice showings on record all occurred in the last 13 years. We’ve bested our “hottest month on record” record for numerous consecutive months.
But even among a streak of exceptionally hot years that are clearly indicative of an underlying trend, 2016 has been astonishing. Temperatures at the North Pole rose above freezing around New Years — more than 10C higher than they should have been. Throughout January and February the planet roasted, but especially the Arctic, where temperatures averaged nearly 20C above normal. NASA’s global heat anomaly map for February lays out the situation:
Our planet is warming up very quickly right now, due to a complex series of heat exchange processes between the ocean and the atmosphere that are being aggravated by the strongest El Niño on record and the ever-rising concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. And the faster the mercury rises, the more we aggravate planetary feedback loops. For instance, as the amount of shiny white surface area shrinks, the Arctic absorbs more heat, which ultimately leads to additional melting of shiny white surfaces.
“As winter sea ice disappears, areas of unusually warm air temperatures in the Arctic will expand,” Rutgers climate scientist Jennifer Francis explained in a statement. “These are also areas of increased evaporation, and the resulting water vapour will contribute to increased cloudiness, which in winter, further warms the surface.”
As a former Earth scientist, watching a series of complex ocean-atmosphere-biosphere feedback loops rev up in real-time is fascinating. As a human whose prospects of escaping to Mars are slim to nil, it’s terrifying.
Image: NASA scientific visualisation studio