2015: A Record Year for Arctic Ice Melt?

The two graphs below are produced by the National Snow and Ice Data Center, in Boulder, CO. The full graph is updated daily, and can be viewed (and customized) at the NSIDC website. In this Post, aiREFORM has selected the record-low years (2006, 2007, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015), and zoomed in to create detailed screen-captures, presented below to allow a closer analysis.

The two graphs depict the annual ice-melt season, from peak Arctic sea ice extent in early March to its bottom in mid September. Note two important graph features: the heavy black line representing average sea ice extent from 1981-2010, and the shaded gray band, representing a range of two standard deviations above and below the mean value. The top graph shows roughly March through May; the bottom graph shows roughly June through September.

Drop-down lines and years have been added by aiREFORM. Bands between drop-down lines reveal years that have record low Arctic sea ice extent. The graphs show that 2006 once held the record for nearly the entire melt season, but new record lows have been set in 2007, 2010, 2011 and 2012.

So, how are we doing in 2015? This year has already produced two new records (marked in red), a 3-week span in March and a 1-week span in early April.  Numerous factors combine to make it highly probable that more records will be set between now and mid September. Factors include:

  • the thin Arctic ice after a warm Arctic winter (most of the cold that accumulated during the dark winter of 2014-2015 went south and hovered over Greenland, Siberia, and the eastern half of North America).
  • the substantially elevated ocean temperatures coupled with the emerging El Niño.
  • the intensified ‘heat pumps’ driving copious amounts of equatorial heat energy in strong, persistent northward flows, from both the Atlantic and the Pacific (around the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge).
  • intensified ‘greenhouse effect’ due to record atmospheric CO2 levels.
  • amplified solar heat retention in the Arctic due to dark open water (vs the higher reflection traditionally seen from white frozen ice).
  • intensified melting of ice due to accumulated dark surface material, including ash from distant wildfires as well as jet soot from air travel.
    20150514scp.. Arctic Sea Ice graph, pt.1 years marked (MAR-MAY)20150514scp.. Arctic Sea Ice graph, pt.2 years marked (JUN-SEP)

How is This Related to Aviation?

The one common modern activity with the highest carbon impact per human is aviation. When one of us chooses to sit in a commercial aircraft, each hour in flight creates roughly the equivalent of ten hours of driving in an efficient car. When many of us opt to use air travel, another flight gets added to the schedule, and more fossil fuels get converted into atmospheric CO2. It is estimated that between 2% and 5% of human-added CO2 comes from aviation, and this amount is rapidly growing.

The growth in commercial air travel is largely due to a coordinated campaign by aviation stakeholders (aka, members of the Av-Gov Complex) Growth is encouraged by airline marketing (to generate profits), by airports (to generate statistics growth and thus qualify for rich federal subsidies), by the aviation manufacturers (to generate profits via sales of aircraft, etc.), and by government agencies such as FAA (to justify agency jobs, and to generate positive statistics needed to get Congressional support for agency expansion).

The Av-Gov Complex pushes for aviation growth, while virtually no one pushes AGAINST growth. And worse, the ability of responsible concerned citizens to moderate aviation growth is being knowingly undermined by FAA, the public agency that is supposed to serve the entire public, not just aviation interests. As an example, a few years ago FAA fed Congress their draft of ambiguous legislation seeking to exempt FAA from having to do rigorous environmental reviews. Congress passed the legislation in early 2012, and FAA has since repeatedly applied this ‘CATEX’ (short for Categorical Exclusion) clause to impose enormously impactful NextGen route changes in Phoenix, Charlotte, Chicago, and elsewhere.

The net result is that, although there is a clear environmental need to scale back aviation (and thus reduce the aviation CO2 impact), little progress is being made. Our planet-scale ‘Earth problem’, as clearly documented in the rapid and destructive changes shown by Arctic ice measurements, is being completely ignored as more and more of us book flights to see coral reefs and polar bears, before they no longer exist.

The problem is already substantial, it is growing, and we are failing to adapt aviation as needed for a sustainable – and, ultimately, even a LIVABLE – future.

And How Can I Reduce My Own Aviation Impact?

Simply fly less and fly more deliberately. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Track your own carbon impact and set your personal goal of how many miles of travel you want to budget for each year. You may want to limit yourself to no more than one or two commercial air trips per year and, if you take a very long air trip, you may want to skip all air travel the next year.
  2. Ignore ‘mileage’ programs on credit cards. These are nothing more than marketing schemes to encourage mindless and excessive consumption.
  3. Encourage others, especially employers, to vigorously minimize all forms of travel especially air travel. Encourage them to opt instead for quality interactions using video, internet, and other technologies.
  4. Focus on your local home, and minimize your travel. Make your government work for you, by ensuring quality of life is preserved with natural space preservation, short-distance access to schools, parks, and retail, and other community design elements that eliminate the need for you to travel far. You should not need to get in your car to enjoy trees and hear birds, or to get away from noisy airport traffic.
  5. Push your elected officials to impose steep carbon taxes against all forms of aviation. We have been subsidizing aviation for decades, by exempting them from fuel taxes, or by limiting aviation fuel tax rates. For example, in Oregon, jet fuel is taxed at just one cent per gallon … this in a state that was once widely viewed as an environment leader.
  6. Also, push your elected officials to eliminate tax breaks that encourage high-wealth individuals and corporations to purchase and use multi-million dollar private jets. The environmental impact of this aviation mode is enormous. A corporate jet carrying a single passenger burns roughly the same amount of fuel as it would if filled with a maximum number of passengers. Consequently, when vanity leads a CEO or a star to choose this form of travel, their individual rate of CO2 generation can exceed by more than a hundred-fold the per-person impact over the same distance, in a fuel-efficient car with all seats filled.