The Arctic sea ice summer melting season is over, and 2016 is in a statistical tie with 2007 for the second smallest ice extent ever recorded in the satellite record. The Arctic finished the melting season with a loss of more than a million square miles of sea ice compared to the average from 1979-2000. That’s about a third of the size of the lower 48 United States.
The lowest 10 ice extent records have all been set in the last decade, and the average has dropped more than 13 percent per decade since satellite records began in 1979. A study published in May looked at the past 37 years of data and found that there has not been one month of record high Arctic sea ice extent, while there have been 75 record lows. Another groundbreaking new study, in which researchers compiled Arctic sea ice data from a vast number of historical sources, demonstrates that the trend so far this century has no precedent going back at least to 1850.
Studies of ice cores–the compacted snows of a million years–provide atmospheric details from the distant past. They, too, show that what is happening now is a break from the past. Peter Wadhams, a leading Arctic sea ice expert, describes it in his just-released book, appropriately named A Farewell to Ice: “Our planet has changed colour. Today, from space, the top of the world in the northern summer looks blue instead of white. We have created an ocean where there was once an ice sheet. It is Man’s first major achievement in reshaping the face of his planet.”
Wadhams is especially concerned about the ice over the Arctic seabeds. These seabeds–the permafrost of the last ice age–contain huge amounts of methane, which is 23 times more powerful in raising air temperature than carbon dioxide. If the Arctic ice melts so much that these seabeds release the stored methane, the climate catastrophe facing the world will be far greater than most of the scenarios described in mainstream media. And if the world continues its business-as-usual pace of burning fossil fuels, it is plausible that somewhere around 2035 the permafrost will be breached and huge plumes of methane released.
It’s not just the ice cover extent that matters, but the overall volume, too. The figures are not yet in for this year, but this excellent 30-second video by Andy Lee Robinson visually demonstrates the dramatic decline in Arctic sea ice volume since the satellite data began in 1979 through last fall. Watch:
What will it take to get the world to care enough to take the urgent action necessary to limit human-caused climate change to a level that future generations will find acceptable? You can provide all the evidence in the world–as we have seen over the past few decades–but many in power will continue to deny it, and to delay action until effective action is no longer possible. The Arctic is melting, but many hearts are frozen.
Our global environmental crisis is at the same time a deep spiritual crisis. Especially in the wealthiest nations of the world there is a widespread brokenness in our relationships–with creation, with each other, even with our own inner selves–which leaves many less open to feelings of empathy. Pope Francis often has called this “the culture of indifference.” It is a deep wound, and will be a great challenge to heal, but it will start with efforts to help people weep again–to experience sorrow for the losses that are occurring on a grand scale all around us. Experiencing the losses, and weeping once again, will help people recover a sense of the world and all life as sacred, and realize the deep threat–the desecration–that is threatening all that is best in the world.
There are many who are working to help the world weep again, and rebuild a strong sense of the sacred. Some are doing this within the perspectives of the world’s religions. Others are writers, poets, artists, filmmakers and photographers, and musicians. In June, the renowned Italian composer and pianist Ludovico Einaudi performed one of his own compositions on a floating platform in the middle of the Ocean near Svalbard, Norway, with a calving Wahlenbergbreen glacier as a backdrop. His goal was to move the world to weep for the loss of the Arctic, and to join in efforts to save it. It is beautiful, haunting, and for me deeply moving. Please watch it, and perhaps you, too, will find your heart being moved.