This was written by Diane MacEachern, Founder & CEO of the Big Green Purse:
Jennifer Francis recently did something for me that few other scientists or activists have been able to do: She made me feel connected to the Arctic Ocean.
That’s not a particularly easy task. I live in the Washington, D.C. metro area, where I enjoy four seasons, lots of beautiful trees and flowers, and wildlife that consists mostly of birds, butterflies, bees, squirrels, raccoons, and the occasional deer and fox. The Arctic Ocean lies 3,500 miles away and due north – all the way up in the North Pole, as a matter of fact. It’s a harsh place, where temperatures range from the very cold to the extremely frigid. You won’t find squirrels there – but you will find polar bears, along with walruses, whales, musk oxen and other animals that have evolved to survive in this extraordinary world.
Once, you also would have found an Arctic Ocean covered with an ice shield so big that it actually reflected sunlight back into the atmosphere. That’s not quite so true anymore — and it matters, especially for all of us who worry about the health and safety of our children and families. I asked Jennifer, a climate change expert and research scientist with the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and the mother of two teenagers, to explain exactly what’s going on “up there,” why we should care, and what we can do about it.
MCAF: Jennifer, is it true the ice at the North Pole is melting? What in the world is going on?
Jennifer: It begins with the fact that we are dumping unbelievable amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These are gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. CO2 is released whenever we burn coal, oil and other fossil fuels. Methane is emitted from natural gas but also from belching cattle! When these gases get into the atmosphere, they tend to stay there for a long period of time. As they build up, they create a sort of “greenhouse” over the earth that causes the planet’s temperature to rise.
In 2012, we as a global society emitted more CO2 in a year than ever before. It’s these excessive greenhouse gases that are causing the ice in the Arctic to melt.
This is a problem because for centuries, Arctic ice has played a very important role in reflecting energy from the sun back into space, a process that helps moderate the climate here on Earth. But in the last 30 years, as levels of greenhouse gases have increased, temperatures on Earth have risen and the ice has rapidly melted. In just three decades, we’ve lost half of the expanse of sea ice that used to cover the Arctic Ocean.
That’s serious because the same amount of solar energy is still hitting the earth. But as you can figure out, the less ice there is, the less that energy is reflected back into space. Instead, all that energy is going into the ocean and warming it up – causing even more ice to melt!
What is the jet stream, and how does the melting Arctic ice affect it?
Think of the jet stream as a fast moving, wavy river of air rippling up (north) and down (south) as it blows from west to east high over our heads in the northern hemisphere. Those north/south swings in the jet stream are what create weather down on the surface of the Earth.
The larger the temperature difference is between cold Arctic air and warmer areas further south, the faster the jet stream moves. Today, because the Arctic is warming faster than areas to the south, that temperature difference is getting smaller. As it does, the jet stream winds are getting weaker, which means the air waves are actually getting bigger and slowing down. That’s why the weather we experience may be hanging around longer.
So all these hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, droughts…they can all be linked to the jet stream and the melting going on in the Arctic Ocean?
Not all the hurricanes and tornadoes necessarily, but the other extreme events may be. As air in the Arctic warms faster and faster, the jet stream’s waves are both getting larger and slowing down. As a result, the weather they create also moves more slowly and stays around for longer periods of time. We see that in weather getting stuck in certain patterns: rainy, snowy, hot, dry, depending on where someone lives relative to the position of the jet stream waves high in the atmosphere. Say a region normally enjoys some period of dry, sunny days. With these changed weather patterns, the same region might experience droughts and heat waves because that pattern is lasting longer in that location. A stormy pattern could turn into persistent rain events that lead to flooding. These extreme weather events become more likely as the globe warms and the Arctic warms faster.
I’m also worried about the impact these changes could have on my kids and my family. My daughter is extremely allergic to poison ivy. Several people in my family suffer from asthma. Is there a link between climate change, the melting Arctic ice, and our health?
I’ve always had hay fever and allergies myself. And of course, I’m on the lookout for the impact any of these issues could have specifically on my own kids. We live in the northeast U.S., where it’s been documented that it’s getting wetter over time as the climate warms. Heavier rainstorms create more mold; it’s one of the most common allergies. So people allergic to mold might suffer when there’s too much rain.
But what about the flip side? Say we get “stuck” in a nice weather pattern, where day after day, it’s dry and the sun shines all the time and the rains don’t come. That can cause problems, too, because pollution, dust and pollen may be trapped longer in our air, rather than get cleared out by a change in the weather. With climate change, we’re going to see more cases of stagnant air conditions in many parts of the United States.
Extreme weather also affects food production. Think about the drought that has gripped the Midwest in the last several years. We’re seeing higher prices for wheat products, milk products, corn, meat, anything being produced in the middle of the country is directly affecting people’s pocket books.
Two winters ago, the temperatures were mild enough in the eastern U.S. to break thousands of high temperature records, especially in March. As a result, there were more ticks, fleas, and other insects because they didn’t get killed off in winter as they normally would have, which increased our chances of getting Lyme disease and other illnesses.
All these issues seem so huge! Honestly, won’t it take maybe hundreds of years to fix – if we can fix them at all? How can anything any of us do at this point improve the situation, especially in our lifetime?
It takes everybody doing a little bit to add up to something. Just having that awareness and mentality will translate into action, both on an individual level, like turning off the lights and driving less, but also by electing leaders to government who will make hard but smart decisions. I take my own bags to the grocery store; we’ve been trying to eat less meat, though we’re not vegetarians. If we buy an appliance, we look for the ENERGY STAR label. We bought an energy-saving hybrid car in 2005. And when we renovated our house, we purchased local materials to reduce their transportation impact.
Is there anything else we can do to make a difference?
Support programs at a local level that will help your community save energy. In my area, we’re seeing a lot of solar panels going up, towns adopting solar by-laws, and big efforts to motivate people to save energy. It all helps.