The Ice Is Melting

The ice is melting.

We all know, of course, that ice melts all the time. In a drink on a summer’s day. When you defrost the old fridge that you refuse to replace. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore. On the car windscreen on a July morning after you toss a bucket of cold water on it. The idea of ice melting is tremendously mundane.

But this is no ordinary ice. This is the Arctic. The polar ice cap. It, too, melts all the time, which is why it’s so easy to overlook what’s happening at the moment.

What’s happening at the moment is that the globe is getting hotter, and the ice is melting further. Year after year, at about this time, the Arctic finishes melting at the end of the northern summer. This time, there’s less than half as much as ice as there used to be in September. This time, it’s serious.

It’s a story that can no longer simply be told with heartrending videos of polar bears struggling to find viable ice, set to swelling strings. The problem is so severe, the extent of the melting so great, that it falls to vast impersonal satellite images to show us that the planet’s air conditioning is on the fritz.

The melting ice is both symptom and cause. As the world gets warmer the ice melts further. So in that sense, no real surprises; everyone knows that the planet is getting hotter, so a smaller Arctic is the result. But we also know that the ice does more to keep us cool than simply be cold.

Just as your parents told you to wear light colours in summer to stay cool, because white reflects heat, so does the massive expanse of ice do the same for the planet. The massive expanse of white ice reflects 80% of sunlight back into space. When the ice melts and exposes the dark, deep ocean, 90% of the sunlight is absorbed by the ocean. The warmer water then melts more white ice, and amplifies the effect.

At its winter peak, the Arctic sea ice expands to cover about 14 million km2, twice the size of Australia. The ice spreads across the Bering Strait and Greenland, extending as far as northern Japan. In a normal summer (‘normal’ being the two decades prior to 2000), it shrinks by about half, retreating to about 6.7 million km2, or nearly one Australia.

In 2012, it is 3.41 million km2.

In 2012, it is half the size it is supposed to be.

If this actually were an Australian ice melt, we’d be missing the eastern seaboard as well as much of South Australia. This would be bad enough but for the fact that it is no longer abnormal. The six largest melts of the Arctic sea ice on record have occurred, in order, in 2012, 2007, 2011, 2008, 2010 and 2009. That is, the past six years.

This is not an event, it is a trend.

Bear in mind, too, that the Arctic summer of 2012 was not a particularly warm one. What the world is witnessing is clear, unambiguous evidence of climate change. And while our politicians and heaviest polluters bicker and squabble over floor prices, ‘cash for closure’, linking carbon permits to Europe and soon, assessing the Renewable Energy Target, the ice continues to melt.

We have a price on pollution now. It’s a first step, but without a second, third, fourth and eighth step, we still face a future without a polar ice cap at all.

Future generations are going to look back at moments like this in stunned disbelief. If the evidence available today is so unequivocal, they will ask, why on Earth did you not act?

Only a few weeks ago, the challenger for the Presidency of the United States used his opponent’s promise to tackle climate change as a punch line. The smart money suggests that the clip is going to feature prominently in documentaries on climate change and our response to it in thirty years’ time.

Our political leaders cannot decide where they stand on the issue, chopping and changing (or obstructing and attacking) legislation that could make a difference. Since the announcement in August that 2012 had set a record for melting of the Arctic, the Prime Minister or Opposition Leader have been mute on the issue.

Our children, in their adulthood, will see prominent people saying things like that and be aghast that these beliefs were held, in the face of all available evidence, in their own lifetimes.

The ice is melting. It is not a question, it is right there, happening today. The only real question is whether we have what it takes to do something about it.