On the shrinkage of polar ice caps


When I was a senior in college, I was in a seminar dedicated to a new book, written by a US senator who had just been elected Vice President. The book was Earth in the Balance. It explained the science of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global climate change. To me, it was a revelation. I was aware of the greenhouse effect, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the massive global effort it would require, until Gore explained it.

Back then, the situation was dire, and we had time to make changes. We didn’t make those changes. Now, 24 years later, we’re implementing a few of those required changes, too slowly.

We have changed the climate of the planet in a substantial manner and we are hitting the point where things are becoming less predictable.

For starters, octopuses are moving into our buildings.

And we’ve got a major sea ice anomaly. Over the weekend, some compilations of data from polar ice coverage made the rounds on social media: Here’s the latest, a composite of global sea ice coverage. (Try to overlook how the y-axis starts at 12 million square kilometers.)


At this time of year, the cover in the south is declining, and and ice pack in the north (normally) is building. Here’s what’s happening right now in the Arctic and Antarctic:n_stddev_timeseriess_stddev_timeseriesThat global figure — the first one — looks (and is) so precipitous because it’s a composite of the accelerated ice loss in the South, and the sluggishness of the ice growth in the North.

This is pretty alarming to me. I am an ecologist, but I’m not an atmospheric scientist, or an oceanographer, nor even a polar biologist. Heck, I study rainforests. So I’m not going to give you a nuanced interpretation of what’s happening. There are others doing this, who have been interviewed, that are worth reading. Here’s the first take on the twitter conversation about it from a few days ago. Here’s one from yesterday. Here’s a very recent Washington Post story about how it’s waaaay hotter in the Arctic than it normally is, which only goes with 2016 being the hottest year on record.

Weather is weather, and maybe this drop in sea ice is a just noise? After all, in the last few years, the Antarctic’s been putting on more ice than usual, but that’s no longer the case. Compared to historical records, the change that we are seeing falls well outside the margins of normal variation:nsidc_global_area_normanomaly.png

This does appear to be a tipping point.

I don’t think this is coming as a surprise to anybody who has been studying these things. For those waiting for the shoe to drop, it looks like it’s on its way down. Things are different.

This unprecedented plummet in global sea ice is paired with another kind of crash in my own country, that will affect everybody else in the world.

Science is just a way of learning new things. If there’s something wrong with our science, and we need to get the information right, then the way to fix it is with more science. So then, it’s mighty bizarre that any person in our moment of history can somehow be opposed to science itself as a thing. But, here we have just elected a leader for our country who is overtly anti-science. If you look at his positions on scientific issues — particularly those related to the carbon pollution causing global climate change — then he is pretty much as bad as it can get. While there has been a consistent anti-science and anti-intellectual ethos in my country, this is a new extreme.

As researchers and educators, we are needed now more than ever. We cannot afford to not engage with the public about climate change and science-based policy decisions. We cannot fail to imbue the spirit of curiosity and investigation into all of our students — especially those who are not science majors. We can’t afford let our phones idle when we can call our congressional representatives to let them know about how their decisions shape our climate and the future of this planet. As scientists, we are the experts trained to understand the how the decisions of our leaders affect the natural world. It’s our duty to inform and advocate both our leaders and the people who select them.

The time for keeping our science within our scientific communities is over.

We are in a time when non-factual and anti-scientific views are given equal time and consideration as actual facts. If you remain impartial — if you don’t actively engage beyond the scientific community — then you’re tacitly approving anti-scientific rhetoric. It’s not politics, it’s about reinvesting the public investment into science back into the public. Our families, our schools, and our communities need us to be public scientists. How do you do that? That’s something I’ll have to think about and write about more. We need a much bigger conversation about what it means to be a scientist in this century. If we keep our science in our labs, classrooms, and academic journals, we might melt away.

3 thoughts on “On the shrinkage of polar ice caps

  1. WUT. That is a problem. To be clear — for climate deniers that might happen to be listening in — the rapid loss that is happening is real and has been independently verified by a number of people and organizations.

    But what’s going on with these units? I haven’t downloaded the original and freely available data. But Tom Houslay has, and built his own figs because he wasn’t keen on the looks of the ones making the rounds:


    It looks like the historical peaks have been between 20-22 , not 26-28. I don’t know how that axis labeling error happened, and I imagine the guy who has been generating these figures is now being subject to a lot more scrutiny than he imagined. Clearly, this error’s enough for me to look for new sources for information next time I happen to look for sea ice data. (Which really won’t be in the next few weeks, I imagine, or months, or years…)

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