Dig, Burn, Melt, Drill, Burn, Melt. Repeat.

SOME processes of cause and effect are relatively easy to get your head around.

For example, if I smash the end of my thumb with a hammer then the effect will be extreme sharp pain, followed by a short burst of f****** swearing and then probably one of those under-the-nail bruises that stick around for months.

An equally simple process to understand is that burning fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas releases extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which causes temperatures to rise. The extra CO2 sticks around for a century or so, perhaps longer.

Now this is of course a hugely  oversimplified version of the greenhouse effect. There’s lots of “noise” in the climate system, but the fundamentals are there. This brings us to the Arctic. No honestly, it really does.

Earlier this week, the US Government’s National Snow and Ice Data Center declared that more sea ice melted away this year than at any other time since records began in 1979.

Sea ice extent fell to 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles), now the lowest summer minimum extent in the satellite record…. This year’s minimum follows a record-breaking summer of low sea ice extents in the Arctic. Sea ice extent fell to 4.10 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) on August 26, breaking the lowest extent on record set on September 18, 2007 of 4.17 million square kilometers (1.61 million square miles). On September 4, it fell below 4.00 million square kilometers (1.54 million square miles), another first in the 33-year satellite record.

This new minimum, NSIDC explained earlier this week, is 3.29 million square kilometres below the 1979-2000 average. Now that’s a difficult number to visualise. Instead imagine losing the states of Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria and then, while you’re at it, also wipe New Zealand off your map. At that point, you’re almost up to 3.29m sq km.

This loss of an ice cap matters because the Arctic’s white cover reflects solar radiation back out into the atmosphere, keeping the planet cooler. When the ice disappears, it exposes the darker ocean beneath, kicking of a series of other effects including warmer ocean temperatures, further thinning and melting of ice and disruption of weather patterns in northern latitudes.

This year’s record low, however, is part of a long term trend in the decline of sea ice. The six lowest sea ice minimums on the satellite record have all occurred in the last six years.

Image courtesy NSIDC

A study earlier this year in the journal Environmental Research Letters, reported in The Guardian, found that human activity (mostly burning fossil fuels) was responsible for at least 70 per cent of the melting.

Rather than signalling alarm, oil companies see an opportunity in the trend of melting ice. Vast stores of undersea oil await.

Climate change campaigner Bill McKibben put the issue succinctly when he said yesterday

There’s no place on Earth where we see the essential irony of our moment playing out more perfectly than in the Arctic. Our response has not been alarm, or panic, or a sense of emergency. It has been: ‘Let’s go up there and drill for oil’. There is no more perfect indictment of our failure to get to grips with the greatest problem we’ve ever faced.

But such is the nature of the “cause and effect” of the fossil fuel industry, that it doesn’t essentially matter to the climate (or to the Arctic) just where the coal, oil and gas gets extracted and burned. Oil fresh from the Arctic or gas fresh from Australia, the effect is the same.

In Queensland earlier this week Greenpeace released a report suggesting that nine mega coal mines planned for the state’s Galilee Basin could potentially see the release of more than 700 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere from burning the coal.

If Galilee was a country, the report claimed, it would be the seventh worst greenhouse polluter on the planet. Mining industry group the Queensland resources Council dismissed the report as having “zero credibility” because the NGO had overestimated the growth in the state’s coal industry.

What isn’t in question, is that Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and has designs on being the world’s largest exporter of Liquified Natural Gas. The country’s biggest contribution to climate change, including the melting Arctic sea ice, comes from the fossil fuels the country exports.

But back to our hammer-smashed thumbnail. Occasionally, if you catch them hard enough, the nail can fall off entirely, which at worst is a little inconvenient.

Losing an ice cap thanks to hammer blows from fossil fuels will in all likelihood be far more painful, with consequences stretching out to future generation and future economies.

Pic: An advert from a 1962 edition of Life magazine for Humble Oil, which later became part of ExxonMobil. Irony to be turned right up to 11. Hat tip to Grist.



Author: Graham

Graham Readfearn is a Brisbane-based journalist. Go to the About page in the top navigation for more information.

9 thoughts on “Dig, Burn, Melt, Drill, Burn, Melt. Repeat.”

  1. “more sea ice melted away this year than at any other time since records began in 1979.”

    There are bound to be records set with such a short recording period. Without any historical records, you really can’t draw any conclusions from this year’s melt.

    I notice that you don’t mention the Antarctic, which hasn’t lost any sea ice extent at all.

  2. Why are you not equally alarmed by the fact that the antarctic (yes, there are two of them!) has just recorded record highs of sea ice (since satellite records started 30 years ago)? These facts, like many others, defy the very science of the alarmist position. Global warming, if it really is ‘global,’ doesn’t just chose to happen in some places and not others. The observed facts and the theory are so obviously in disagreement.

    We also know that carbon emissions from the ocean are 11 times greater than those from fossil fuels, and further, carbon emissions from natural vegetation are 18 times greater than all our fossil fuel emissions – these numbers are supplied by your famed IPCC. Your finger pointing at energy industries, which compared with far larger natural carbon cycles make only minor contributors, seems both baseless and irrational?

  3. How quickly we forget the Larsen Ice Shelf and the other massive collapses of sea ice in Antarctica. There may well be increases in some sea ice this year because we know that some areas of Antarctica are actually cooling slightly and others are warming – we’ve known that for years. Global warming is not uniform all over the world – the Arctic is warming far more rapidly than elsewhere (that’s well understood – a 4 degree C average rise in temperature world wide will result in a 20 degree C average rise across the Arctic and northern land masses).

    Robert conveniently forgets to mention that the oceans have been absorbing CO2 at a slightly higher rate than they are releasing it with the imbalance causing acidification of the oceans (now approaching saturation). And, he doesn’t mention at all that vegetation absorbs CO2 at the roughly same rate as decay and deforestation releases it. As we deforest further that absorption will decrease. That leaves our burning of fossil fuels as the major culprit, and that is universally accepted by those who know – the world’s climate scientists…….

  4. Interesting read. Tittered at the ad from Life Magazine. @Robert, I’m not an expert and I only catch snippets of information here and there regarding global warming from both camps. Do you happen to know if the growth of the Antartic sea ice is proportional to the loss of artic sea ice? Is this anything to do with the ocean currents being redirected? Also, is it correct that methane emissions from the oceans are increasing because of the seas themselves warming as a result of melting sea ice? Desalination?

  5. The entire 20th century global warming is accepted to be around 0.6deg, to start claiming 4deg rise (or even 20deg) requires a dramatic leap of faith. Climate computer models which loosely predicted 0.1deg per decade have resoundingly overestimated warming by almost a factor of 3 – it simply didn’t happen. Global warming has now effectively ground to a halt, and has been that way for over a decade.

    Knowing that global warming started around 1680, but less than 1% of human emissions occurred before 1850, what caused the 0.6deg global warming from 1680 to 1850? Witchcraft? Crooked Hockey sticks?

    Ocean acidification is yet another hoax with no basis in any real world observation. To begin with, seawater is alkaline, not acid, which means it is a process of becoming less alkaline – but of cause, climastrologists prefer to use ‘scary’ words like acidification.

    Stephen, as the oceans warm they will release more CO2 into the atmosphere, but we’ll have to wait and watch for hundreds of years, there is typically an 800 year lag. While accurate data is limited, based on Argo ocean temperatures since 2000, there is a cooling trend.

  6. Skeptical, you say: “There are bound to be records set with such a short recording period. Without any historical records, you really can’t draw any conclusions from this year’s melt.”
    Genuine skepticism is one thing – and you make a valid point about the relatively short records of Arctic ice extent – but September Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 11.5 percent per decade, relative to the 1979 to 2000 average. If your life savings were invested in a fund whose assets were declining in value at that rate, with the worst six years of decline happening in the past six years of the record, I’m pretty sure you’d be drawing conclusions and acting accordingly. That’s not a coincidence, that’s a trend.
    Even so, the extent of sea ice is simply one measure of what is going on in the Arctic and the Antarctic. The land ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, for example, are also steadily losing mass [check out the indicators here http://climate.nasa.gov/keyIndicators/%5D. And that’s a non-trivial issue because, unlike melting sea ice, melting land ice contributes to sea-level rise. In the Arctic, the thickness of the sea has also declined significantly in recent decades. As well, the average age of the Arctic sea ice has declined too – much less sea-ice that forms in one winter is making it through to the next winter.
    So the extent of the sea-ice is only one factor. Not only is it steadily declining, but the remaining ice is steadily getting younger and thinner each year. I think it’s fair to draw conclusions about all that, especially considering corroborating global evidence of gradual increases in average temperatures, rising sea levels and so on
    If it were me, I’d conclude that if I decided to withdraw my life-savings and transfer them to another fund, I’d very likely find that all the other funds were experiencing the same trend – because the economy as a whole was doing likewise.
    But I guess you know all this and that facts are not really the issue here: it’s all about spreading doubt.

  7. Typo above: should be “the thickness of the sea-ice has also declined significantly in recent decades”

  8. Arctic sea ice extents and trends for a century have been reconstructed from shipboard observations,photos/aerial photos,and satellite.

    This retreat is unprecedented in that record.

    To argue global warming started around 1680 is to place unsupportable certainty on one thermometer that is considered to have a very wide error margin because of siting changes and poor manufacture. Thats why HadCET starts in 1772,when researchers agree that the instrumentation was more reliable.

    The rest of Robert’s claims are false as well,and so frequently debunked,I won’t bother here. Such as deliberately confusing the natural CO2 flux with the additive effect of burning desequestered carbon. Tiresome,

    There is also no quantitative parallel between Arctic and Antarctic trends.

    Dissemblers elsewhere seek to explain away the long-term trend by appealing to single events: every season seems to have some exceptional expulsive/melting factors that just coincidentally overwhelm retentive/freezing ones. That’s weather folks,not a climate trend; trends are down for every season.

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