Ever hear of a town called Norilsk? Until this week, neither did I. Norilsk is a little Siberian town of over 100,000 residents, which has the distinction of being the northernmost city in the world. Temperatures in Norilsk can get as low as -53 degrees Celsius or -64 degrees Fahrenheit. And just in case you were wondering, that’s pretty freakin’ cold. Forget frostbite, a person could die of exposure within minutes in such an environment.
Care to guess what the temperature was this week in this arctic town? A balmy 32 degrees Celsius or 90 degrees Fahrenheit.
I’ll repeat that just in case you missed it the first time. This week the temperature in the northernmost city in the whole world was 90 degrees. For those keeping score, that was higher than the temperature in New York City.
If you think that odd, try this on for size. Over the last two months, Alaska has been in the middle of one of the worst heat waves since the state was admitted into the Union. Anchorage, a city not usually known for heat and humidity, as of last Thursday had 33 straight days over 70 degrees, just 16 days shy of the record set in 2004. Based on forecasts for the city, that record looks like it will fall.
Now to be fair, it’s not like heat waves in the extreme north don’t happen. Norilsk has had temperatures that flirted with 90 degrees before. Indeed, the average temperature in July is 65. I checked. And then there’s that aforementioned ’04 heat wave that (you’ll pardon the pun) baked Alaska. These things do happen.
The point is that they have been happening with greater frequency over the last few years. Weather patterns are becoming increasingly difficult to predict and more and more erratic. For instance, just last year, Anchorage had the snowiest winter in its history and that summer witnessed only 9 days with temps 70 and over.
It is becoming like that all over the world. Strange weather patterns, prolonged droughts, raging forest fires and increasing tornadic and tropical storm activity are rapidly becoming the norm and the consequences are starting to show.
This July, the North Pole – Santa’s workshop – was a lake. That’s right, a lake. Where there is usually a sheet of ice, water now sits at the top of the world. I hope Mrs. Claus brought her bathing suit. And what about those poor elves and reindeer? I’m not even sure they can swim.
To get back to being serious for a moment, decreasing ice levels spell trouble for the planet. According to a NASA study released in 2012, “the oldest and thickest Arctic sea ice is disappearing at a faster rate than the younger and thinner ice at the edges of the Arctic Ocean’s floating ice cap.” This ice, which covers 15 percent of the ocean surface “is diminishing at a rate of 15.1 percent per decade.” Many scientists now predict that by the middle of this century the Arctic Ocean will be “ice free” during the summer months.
Melting sea ice means higher sea levels. Cities like New York will be more prone to flooding during storms in the future. Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc with the tri-state area and caused severe erosion due to the storm’s surge. Lower Manhattan was under several feet of water for days. It was weeks before the city was able to fully restore subway service downtown. Imagine if that scenario played itself out on a regular basis but with storms lesser in intensity than Sandy. It is quite possible that within a few decades, lower Manhattan could be uninhabitable.
But it isn’t just rising sea levels that have scientists up at night. As more and more sea ice continues to melt, the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight decreases and the planet absorbs more and more of the Sun’s radiation. That translates into higher global temperatures, which in turn result in more ice loss, which in turn mean less reflection and more heat absorption. In short, we’re cooking ourselves.
But the biggest concern lies under the ice. Rising global temperatures aren’t just responsible for melting ice and rising sea levels; they are responsible for thawing out the permafrost: the frozen ground in the Arctic region. Why is this a problem? Because if the permafrost were to melt, millions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane that have been trapped inside it for thousands of years would be released into the atmosphere. The effects of that happening are incalculable. Global temperatures, already moving up, will likely increase at a geometric rate, thus producing still more greenhouse gases. While humanity would probably survive, huge areas of the planet might be rendered unlivable.
If that scares the shit out of you, it should. This isn’t some science fiction drama playing out in front of us. This reality is happening right before our very eyes. We can no longer afford to kick the can down the road hoping the next generation will do what we didn’t have the stomach to do, or continue to deny the evidence because it differs with a particular political viewpoint, ideology or religious dogma. Such shortsightedness is what got us into this mess in the first place. The future is now. This is no longer a question of if but of when and how bad.
Recently, the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii reported that carbon dioxide concentration reached the feared 400 parts per million mark for the first time since about 3 million years ago when the Earth was considerably warmer. It was 350 parts per million in the late 1980s. There is no telling where it may be in 30 years or so, let alone the end of the century. If we don’t wake up soon, it may be too late to avoid the inevitable catastrophe.