Is this some really good news about climate change? One of its most worrying manifestations has long been the shrinking of the polar ice cap in summer. Concern reached unprecedented heights two and a half years ago when over 200,000 square miles were found to have melted for the first time, bringing the extent of the ice cap in September 2007 down to levels that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s models had predicted would not be reached before 2050.
Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado - probably the world’s leading institution in the field – then said that they feared that the ice had entered a ‘death spiral’. And, even though the extent of the ice has recovered somewhat in the succeeding two Septembers (always the month with the least amount after the summer heat) many experts still believed that a ‘tipping point’ had been reached, with some suggesting that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer as early as 2013. This, others added, could have catastrophic worldwide effects, including disrupting the Indian monsoon and causing prolonged drought in the American Mid-West, which helps feed over 100 countries worldwide.
But now reports of new research, due to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, suggest that much of the loss of ice may not be directly caused by global warming after all. They say that the research – led by Masayo Ogi of the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology in Yokohama, Japan – has found that changes in wind patterns account for about half of the variation in September ice cover. In the years of higher loss, the scientists found, the winds blew large amounts of ice south through the Fram Strait between Greenland and the Svarlbard Archipeligo to melt in the warmer waters of the North Atlantic.
This offers hope that the more apocalyptic predictions for the melting of the the Arctic may prove to have been unjustified. But the scientists also point out that increasing air and water temperatures are also melting the ice-cap, thus rejecting contentions by some climate sceptics that global warming is not responsible in any way. In all, they conclude, the changes in wind patterns appear to be responsible for about a third of the decline in the extent of the ice-cap since 1979. And other research has shown that the thickness of the icecap has also declined steeply, something that would not have been affected by wind blowing ice out of the Arctic.
Yet it is very good news if indeed it proves to be true that global warming is melting the icecap less quickly (and if it does not turn out, for example, that the alterations in wind patterns are not themselves linked to the climate change). And, counterintuitively, it would strengthen, rather than weaken, the case for action to tackle it. For if the ice were indeed to vanish in summer by 2013, the inertia built in the world’s natural systems would ensure that it would already be it would be already far too late . Instead we may have enough time to stop the complete melting taking place.