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Socialism Today 96 - November 2005

Is arctic melting reaching a tipping point?

THE BBC reports (28 September): "Arctic ice ‘disappearing quickly’. The area covered by sea ice in the Arctic has shrunk for a fourth consecutive year, according to new data released by US scientists". At the current rate, the Arctic polar ice cap will disappear by 2060, far sooner than previous estimates.

It looks like we are seeing a "positive feedback effect, a ‘tipping-point’", says Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado, USA. A tipping point is a situation when additional quantities (in this case of greenhouse gasses) lead to a qualitative change – the thing tips and suddenly everything slides.

Are we seeing a tipping point, where the world experiences sudden catastrophic changes caused by global warming? Malcolm Gladwell popularised the term in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, although the concept was known even in ancient Greece. Marxists call it the ‘transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa’, and it is very real. The loss of the Arctic ice together with other melting on its own could lead to seas rising between 30-88cm by the end of this century, but more importantly, "the Arctic played a fundamental role in regulating the Earth’s climate", according to Terry Callaghan, an Arctic ecologist who helped produce the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment published last year. This is not to mention the destruction of wildlife habitat.

If this tipping point leads to neighbouring Greenland’s ice melting, it will raise sea levels by seven metres. At current rates this would take thousands of years. But the speed at which Greenland’s glaciers are sliding into the sea has already tripled. The Kangerdlugssuaq glacier now moves at 1.6 metres an hour, three times as fast as in 1988. This is almost as fast as the speediest glacier, the Jakobshavn Isbrae. Between them, they comprise 10% of Greenland’s ice.

Global warming tipping points in the northern hemisphere include the feedback effect of the melting of Arctic ice itself, which increases the ability of the sea to absorb sunlight and warm up. The Arctic ice reflects 80% of sunlight, whilst water only reflects 20%. The melting of the permafrost, a permanently frozen layer, under about one fifth of the world’s landmass, is cited as another tipping point, which will release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, ten or twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide.

Ice cores extracted from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets provide clues that suggest previous tipping points in the earth’s development. Startling rises in the earth’s temperature, thought to have taken thousands of years, in fact happened in almost an instance of geological time. In late 2001, scientists identified one possible cause of this sudden change – the release of methane frozen beneath the sea.

Trapped at the bottom of the oceans is about 3,000 times the amount of methane in the atmosphere. It enters the oceans through ‘cold seeps’ – the cold equivalent of thermal vents, with their own ecology, including, believe it or not, one- or two-inch ice worms that burrow in the methane hydrate (a chemical compound of methane and water) that freezes there.

The top story on the Goddard Space Flight Centre website (10 December 2001) reported: "A tremendous release of methane gas frozen beneath the sea floor heated the earth by up to 13 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) 55 million years ago, a new NASA study confirms". That was a significant tipping point, and another event of this kind could result in runaway global warming.

Will the fate of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina this year be repeated around the world if Greenland’s ice melts and seas rise seven metres? Parts of New Orleans flooded to eight metres – but it was preventable. The New Scientist reported (22 September): "Scientists claim faulty construction or poor maintenance led to breaches [in the levees] rather than the walls being over-topped by water".

The October edition of Socialism Today showed how cuts in the Federal budget led to this avoidable tragedy. But if the richest country in the world cannot protect its poorest citizens, the outlook for the Indian subcontinent, particularly low-lying Bangladesh, looks very poor under capitalism.

Ancient feudal despots of the Indian subcontinent generally preserved the infrastructure of the lands they conquered, Friedrich Engels pointed out, until British imperialism’s rule when these structures – such as irrigation – were abandoned, resulting in "regularly recurring famines". (Anti-Duhring II, IV) These famines marked the descent into hell for the poor peasants and workers of the region, and the lack of defence against ‘natural’ disasters (including the destruction caused by the recent earthquake) is a long-term consequence.

Should the oceans’ waters rise, whilst not trivialising the issue, it is not beyond the ingenuity of people to take effective precautions, only given their own democratic control and management over the resources of the planet – a socialist society and careful planning. (The same applies to building schools and blocks of flats adequate to withstand the known potential strength of earthquakes.) The same democratic socialist plan, with the world’s resources at its disposal, would be the powerhouse behind finding a solution to stabilising the planet’s environment – but the clock is ticking.

The Arctic ice has shrunk from around 7.5 million kilometres two decades ago, to roughly 5.5 million km today, a new record. Opponents of the observed global thawing argue that the earth is recovering from the ‘little ice age’ which caused the Thames to freeze over at its peak in the 17th century, and which lasted roughly from the 14th to the 19th century. Ice sheets and glaciers are still experiencing the effects of this warming, they claim, and the Antarctic seems to be invulnerable, with no observed warming. (If the Antarctic melted, oceans would rise 80 metres.) The ice in the northern hemisphere may be "piling up along the north Canadian coast", says Professor Morris of the British Antarctic Survey, but "we wouldn’t expect to have four years in a row of shrinkage. That, combined with rising temperatures in the Arctic, suggests a human impact".

Global warming after this little ice age has caused Mount Kenya to lose seven of its 18 glaciers since 1900, reports Fred Pearce in the New Scientist (27 August 2005). Sceptics of global warming claim this is due to random variations in snow precipitation. But Mount Kilimanjaro has had ice for at least 11,000 years, yet it has now lost 80% of its ice, and it looks like losing the rest in less than 20 years.

The Antarctic ice core, drilled down more than two miles, reveals that current concentrations of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide (CO2), at over 350 parts per million (ppm), are higher than in the last 450,000 years. CO2 regularly peaked at little more than 250 ppm in this period. By comparison, the current sudden rise in CO2 emissions is literally stratospheric. In addition, the current atmospheric methane level is about 230% of its pre-industrial maximum.

Europe’s biggest glacier, the Breidamerkurjokull in Iceland, has been shrinking for most of the past century. But most scientists agree, with vast amounts of data available and a range of accurate global climate models, that the warming since the little ice age in the previous centuries merely overlapped with the human-made warming since the beginning of the industrial age. Human causes are the only known factors that can account for the rapid reduction of the North Pole’s ice.

Pete Mason


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