Have We Just Seen a Drastic Change in Polar Ice?

Here’s a possibly weak analogy, but I think it makes the point well. Suppose you drive a car everyday and for a few months now you have listened to a squeak that you are pretty sure indicates you need to get maintenance on your brakes. Months have passed since you first realized this, because you have been busy and distracted. Minutes ago, while you were doing your normal drive, a failure happened, and that annoying squeak suddenly became something much bigger. Your instincts kicked in and you wrestled for control while veering off the road, struggling to avoid damaging your vehicle, yourself, and others.

That car might in fact be our planet, our climate system, our future. Do you see the problem? The analogy applies to the polar ice data, discussed below.

What Happened in October This Year?

Has our climate change situation ‘veered off course’ in the middle of 2016? Charts showing daily sea ice extent in both the Arctic and Antarctic polar regions suggest this is distinctly possible. See the screencaps below, showing two charts, both copied from the National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC) website, out of Boulder, CO. For both images, aiREFORM has selected sea ice extent for all years, 2005 through 2016, and only for the last four months of each calendar year. Note that the heavy black line represents the average from 1981 through 2000; the light gray band represents a two standard deviation statistical range either side of the average. Lastly, and most importantly, note the extraordinary departure of the dark red line at the bottom: this is 2016, and for both polar regions, the drop away from normality is as if a wheel fell off our loaded Christmas shopping cart.


NSIDC chart showing Arctic Sea Ice Extent, all years 2005-2016, for the last four months of the calendar year


NSIDC chart showing Antarctic Sea Ice Extent, all years 2005-2016, for the last four months of the calendar year

And here’s another analogy. If an egg falls off a wall, is it possible, the consequences are irrecoverable? And, just how fragile is our climate? Would we be helping future generations if we were mindful to consume energy in moderation?

How This Connects to Air Travel

I was recently sent a link to a blog by a former air traffic controller spending a few years as a travelling ex-pat, living and travelling all over the globe. He essentially lays out why he now owns two valid U.S. passports, with this paragraph:

To me, it is perfectly reasonable to want to rush to a place because you can’t get a song out of your head: “London Calling,” “Kathmandu,” “Kashmir,” “New York, New York,” “Marrakesh Express?” I see nothing wrong with making a last-minute trip to Turkey just because there is a fantastic new seafood place on the Aegean Sea in Alacati. If the wildebeest migration is supposed to be especially photogenic in Tanzania next week, I want to be there. If you too think these things are reasonable, maybe you too should look into getting a second passport.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It is wonderful that people can travel and feel a richer life experience, day-to-day. But this activity, this level of consumption, has negative impacts. Others pay costs – some immediately, some in due time.

The immediate impacts are that the higher consumption of air miles translates to more flights, more planes per hour at locations already burdened with repetitive noise and air pollutant impacts; e.g., we see FAA working to add runway throughput at the hub airports, which causes perpetual sleep loss under the new NextGen routes.

The not-so-immediate impacts are, quite potentially, the destruction of the capacity of our planet to grow enough food and sustain many species. And, holy crap, looking at these two charts and applying decades’ worth of trained and experienced analytical skills, I can say: objectively, probabilities are much higher that these charts portend a serious and rapidly intensifying problem, versus the opposite.

Look, I’m not trying to be alarmist here, I’m just saying: let’s be fully eyes-open and awake with the decisions we make about how we each live, especially about our energy consumption, our own personal carbon footprint. To my friend, who is also a retired FAA air traffic controller, I’ll briefly rebut: “No, it is NOT perfectly reasonable to want to rush to a place because you can’t get a song out of your head. Just look at the charts above.”

Indeed, moderation is a beautiful thing.