HC 913 Protecting the Arctic: The Government's response
Written evidence submitted by the Arctic Methane
A call for preparations to cool the Arctic
The government prides itself on evidence-based decision making. And, when it comes to almost all matters of public concern, the government adopts the precautionary principle. For example in the face of a possible outbreak of a potentially fatal disease, the government will adopt the precaution of vaccination if this can help to protect the public.
On the matter of the environment, the government is prepared to take lead in setting an ambitious target for emissions reduction over coming decades. Now, with support from the Environment Audit Committee, we would like to see them take a lead on preparations to deal with a short-term problem which threatens to get out of control with catastrophic repercussions.
We are asking the government to take a fresh look at the situation in the Arctic, on the basis of evidence given to them by the Environment Audit Committee.
1. We would like the government to accept the evidence of rapid sea ice decline given by observations of sea ice volume, suggesting a collapse of sea ice cover in the next few years. On the other hand the government claim there are observations to support the "anticipation" of summer sea ice survival to 2030 or beyond. There are no such observations. See appendix.
2. We would like the government to accept that the consequences of a collapse in sea ice extent and uncontrolled Arctic warming would have damaging ramifications for regional and global climate.
3. We would like the government to accept that the Arctic sea ice is well past its tipping point.
4. We would like the government to accept that a collapse of sea ice, and consequent Arctic warming, risks domino effects: the rapid escalation of methane emissions from thawing permafrost, runaway melting of the Greenland ice-sheet and a collapse of thermohaline circulation.
5. We would like them to accept that these domino effects would have disastrous consequences for global climate and sea levels.
6. We would like them to accept that the situation is a wake-up call to tackle climate change – but particularly to tackle the effects of climate change in the Arctic.
7. And we would like them to accept that risks from Arctic warming make it imperative that any readily available opportunity to make a difference is grasped.
We believe that such an opportunity exists – a unique opportunity for international collaboration in a common cause – to prevent a catastrophe from Arctic meltdown.
Although EAC has rejected geoengineering as a long-term solution for tackling climate change, what we are proposing is a localised intervention and short-term solution specifically to reverse changes to temperature caused by climate change – i.e. returning the climate system towards an earlier and safer state – as a temporary measure while a long-term solution is being brought into play. We support the government and EAC in acknowledging that the long-term solution for tackling climate change involves a reduction in greenhouse gases and black carbon. And we support the EAC in having a moratorium on drilling in the Arctic.
The proposed short-term solution involves a localised intervention to cool the major currents which carry warm water from the Atlantic into the Arctic – currents which have become warmer as a result of global warming. The most favoured technique involves the brightening of clouds using cloud condensation nuclei produced by spraying very fine droplets of sea water into the air from ships or islands. There do not appear to be any downsides to this technique except that it is not yet proven to be effective as may be required. The readiness to deploy a combination of several techniques is most desirable, to maximise the chances of success.
We urge the government to adopt a precautionary approach by funding the preparation of equipment for cooling action to slow the melt of sea ice this summer, should the sea ice show signs of decline with respect to 2012, as we expect and fear. Apart from field trials, we suggest that no significant deployment need be considered until the evidence is clear that such deployment is necessary to halt a further decline in sea ice.
The Met Office have suggested that some kind of natural negative feedback will come into play to prevent the sea ice from following the trend shown by sea ice volume observations. Despite requests and a formal letter to the Met Office for their opinion as to where this negative feedback might come from, there has been no response. Nevertheless, there could be a volcanic eruption on a par with Mount Pinatubo’s eruption of June 1991 which had a cooling effect globally of 0.5 degrees over two years, with an enhanced effect in the Arctic. If such an eruption were to occur between now and the summer, deployment could be avoided.
We would warn the government, as we warned EAC, that there is now strong evidence that the warming of the Arctic as a result of snow and ice albedo loss is already influencing jet stream behaviour in such a way as to produce a dramatic increase in weather extremes, as witnessed in many countries during 2012. Such weather extremes are producing an increase in food prices, with the world food price index already above the crisis level. Above this level, people in many countries are not able to buy enough food to live and they riot to overthrow government, as witness the Arab Spring. The price index is set to rise this year and next. There is also a risk, as governments decide to subsidise food rather than service debt, of default on bank loans, collapse of banks, and a destabilisation of the world economy.
On another matter, the EAC urges the government to play a full role in conservation of biological diversity of the Arctic. The loss of sea ice would have a devastating effect on biodiversity in the whole region, and could have catastrophic effects on the food chain which it is impossible to anticipate.
Complete loss of sea ice would throw the planet into a new, unknown, state, presenting dangers of which we are currently unaware, as well as dangers of sea level rise and global warming of which we are aware. The safe thing to do in such circumstances is to prepare to cool the Arctic, and try and prevent a journey into the unknown which could prove fatal for the human species. Any proper risk assessment would come to this conclusion.
Actual observations support the case for urgent action
Peter Wadhams, Professor of Ocean Physics at the University of Cambridge, writes:
The official response to the EAC report states that "Based on observations and available climate model evidence, we do not anticipate a complete collapse of sea ice cover in the next few years". This is simply wrong, since three types of observation show that the sea ice cover is indeed on the path towards complete collapse, at least in the summer months, within the next three years:-
1. Satellite data showing an enhanced rate of retreat, leading to the record low area of 3.4 million sq km in September 2012;
2. Submarine data showing a continued thinning, which when combined with the satellite data gives a figure for ice volume (area x thickness) which was only 30% in 2012 of its value in the 1980s. The ice volume trend leads inevitably to extinction of the summer ice cover by 2015.
3. Cryosat data, which was quoted by Dr Slingo as being eagerly awaited, and which when actually obtained (by the late Prof Seymour Laxon, killed in an accident on Jan 2) fully agreed with the submarine data in showing a large volume decrease during 2012.
It is thus quite wrong to state that observations do not predict a rapid extinction of the ice cover. They do. It is models that do not, for the simple reason that the models are inadequate and do not represent all the physical processes at work. The Government's response in this area is essentially wrong.
23 January 2013