What is happening in the Arctic is what Peter Wadhams, myself and others in AMEG have been dreading – that our deductions from the physics of the Arctic sea ice situation have come true. We also understand some of the dreadful repercussions from a sea ice collapse, which nobody has wanted to believe. But it is also like a cloud lifted, because now we can tell the world that we’ve been right all along. The sea ice extent was bound to start collapsing within the next year or two, because the thickness was decreasing steadily. Now it’s happened. Now people will have to face up to the repercussions. Now people can realise that our only choice, if we want to avoid decent into a hellish nightmare, is to geo-engineer like mad – use all the measures and techniques at our disposal that we can deploy immediately or at least before next summer’s melt, in the hope of trying to prevent further collapse.
We have left action awfully late. The first sea ice collapse in 2007 should have prepared us for further collapse in the following years. The physics is elementary. It was not put in the climate models, which have continued to forecast that the sea ice would last for decades. The Hadley Centre models were predicting end century demise. This is what is cemented into IPCC AR4 on which all climate negotiations are based. These models have now proved rubbish. Yet it was the chief scientist at the Met Office, Prof Julia Slingo, ultimately responsible for the Hadley models, who rubbished the PIOMAS data on sea ice volume, saying that her models would prove Wadhams and AMEG wrong. This is on public record, because she gave this as evidence to the Environment Audit Committee hearing on “Protecting the Arctic”.
But far more serious than the denial of physics and the laws of nature was the denial of the precautionary principle – if our concerns about sea ice loss and repercussions (particularly a methane excursion) had even a small probability of proving correct, it would have been sensible to prepare for the worst by developing the geoengineering techniques that could provide enough cooling power to avoid a sea ice collapse. The cost would have been minimal in relation to the cost of trying to deal with repercussions – which some of us fear could be the end of civilisation. But nothing happened, so no geoengineering has been prepared.
AMEG has had a predicament – a dilemma. If we say how bad the situation really is, people will brand us as doom-mongers and not want to listen. If we don’t, then nobody will learn the truth.
But now it’s different. Our predictions on the sea ice have proved correct. We have the credibility. Our timescales are appropriate. (Only the other day a student wrote an article for the Ecologist saying that, after consulting experts at UEA, he was convinced that AMEG had got its timescales wrong.)
The most visible repercussions of sea ice decline and rapid Arctic warming (it’s warming five or six times the global average by my reckoning, and that ratio will leap up as the sea ice disappears) are the escalating emissions of methane, now seen to be bubbling in vast plumes from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf seabed, and the global weirding, seen to be affecting farmers all over the world as the Arctic warms, polar jet stream meanders more, sticking in places to cause weather extremes, long periods of both hot dry weather and cool wet weather. These two repercussions have been AMEG’s focus of late, see press release.
Never in the history of the human race has there been so much danger to confront. We have the brains – we should have the intelligence – to deal with it. Psychologically we have real problems, continuing to believe that we are immortal and “it can’t happen to us”. It is.