Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race. He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.”
If we were to pick one aspect of climate change that will catastrophically impact everyone on Earth, what would it be? We are especially looking for an aspect that is approaching like a freight train, in the sense that we can see it coming and its progress seems inexorable.
The overheating in the Arctic Circle is a great choice. We can see the disaster coming, and when it arrives it will be catastrophic. In addition, this single aspect of climate change will have immense planetary effects through at least 5 different facets of the catastrophe.
How do we know that the Arctic Circle is overheating?
There is no question that the Arctic region is heating up rapidly. The obvious way to detect overheating is to use thermometers, and scientists have been tracking temperatures in the Arctic Circle for decades. What we now know is that the Arctic Circle is warming 4 times faster than Planet Earth as a whole is:
Why is the Arctic heating up so much faster? The video describes it this way:
“The Arctic is heating up… Almost 4 times faster than the rest of the planet. Why is this happening? Similar reports call this Arctic amplification. And here is how it works. Normally the polar ice reflects the sun’s heat, and it bounces off the Arctic region. But now that the ice is melting into the sea, there is no surface to reflect the sun’s heat. All that warmth is being absorbed by the water. And the result is this: Faster Arctic warming.”
The other way we know about the warming in the Arctic Circle is by tracking the loss of sea ice in the region:
“Ice melt in the summer is normal, but scientists and mariners say it is thinner now, disappearing earlier in the summer and returning later in the fall. According to the U.S. national snow and ice data center, Arctic Sea ice coverage has dropped by an average of about 34,000 square miles each year since 1979. When a surface is white, it reflects radiation back into space. When that surface goes from white to dark, as occurs when you melt ice, more of that energy is absorbed locally.”
As the Arctic Circle warms up, what will the effects be? Let’s take a look at five facets of the approaching catastrophe.
Effect #1 – Distortions in the jet stream
This video offers one of the best quick-descriptions of the jet stream and its effects on global weather.
“Most of our weather in the U.S. is dictated by something called the jet stream. Basically, it is fast-moving winds that travel horizontally high in the atmosphere. The jet stream is most stable when there are big differences in temperature between cold air and warm air. As the Arctic warms and the temperature difference shrinks, the jet stream can get wobbly and slow down. Emerging research suggests that can lead to slower weather patterns that can stick around longer, potentially leading to more persistent cold and hot weather, or even dry and wet weather.”
Think about the “polar vortex” phenomenon that everyone in the United States is now familiar with. We had never heard of polar vortexes until about 10 years ago. The phenomenon is caused by changes in the jet stream. We are seeing the same polar vortex effect this January as the jet stream gyrates.
“These severe cold events occur when the polar jet stream – the familiar jet stream of winter that runs along the boundary between Arctic and more temperate air – dips deeply southward, bringing the cold Arctic air to regions that don’t often experience it.”
Effect #2 – A blue ocean event (BOE)
There will come a day in the not-too-distant future when the rising heat in the Arctic Circle melts all the ice in the Arctic Sea during the summer. This is known as a Blue Ocean Event (BOE). When the BOE happens, temperatures in the Arctic will be able to soar. All the sunlight hitting the region will be hitting the darker ocean water and heating it up. This video talks about the top 10 consequences of a BOE:
- Latent heat
- Albedo change
- Melting ice sheet
- Increased water vapor
- Sea level rise
- Jet stream disruption
- Global food crisis
- Climate refugee crisis
- Regional and global conflict
The soaring temperatures in the Arctic Circle will have two major side effects.
Effect #3 – Collapse of the Arctic permafrost and carbon/methane release
With the sea ice in the Arctic Circle thawing, and temperatures in the Arctic Circle soaring, all the permafrost in the region will be melting. As it melts, gigatons of carbon dioxide and methane that have been locked in the permafrost will start entering the atmosphere.
“There are about 1,500 gigatons of carbon locked up in this permafrost that become available for release when the permafrost thaws. That is about 2.5 times the amount that humanity has emitted so far.”
That’s just the carbon. Add in all the methane that will be released and this is a one-two punch for the planet in terms of global warming.
Effect #4 – Rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet and sea level rise
The recent news from Greenland is dreadful and is captured in headlines like these:
From the third article:
“Scientists are growing increasingly concerned that the Earth’s warming could trigger tipping points for major ice sheets. Greenland contains about 8% of the world’s freshwater. Its total melt would raise sea levels by almost 7 [meters, 23 feet] and could change ocean circulation patterns. The study also suggests that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading body on assessing the climate crisis, has underestimated how much ice is being lost in Greenland.”
Accelerated melting in Greenland is yet another effect of the rising temperatures in the Arctic Circle. Add in a Blue Ocean Event and the melting will accelerate even more. Rising sea levels will become devastating to coastal cities around the globe.
What does the previous quote mean when it says, “could change ocean circulation patterns”? It is talking about the AMOC.
Effect #5 – Collapse of the gulf stream and AMOC
In the United States we are familiar with the Gulf Stream. It’s a river of seawater flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf Stream is part of a larger circulating pattern in the Atlantic Ocean known as the AMOC, or the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, as described here: Is A Mega Ocean Current About to Shut Down?
“It’s a critical component of the Earth’s climate system. The AMOC helps distribute heat throughout the Atlantic Ocean basin, which in turn helps regulate climate and weather patterns around the globe. The warm water it carries through the North Atlantic, for instance, is the reason much of Europe is known for its mild winters.”
All the meltwater in Greenland (250 billion metric tons per year according to the article) will eventually destroy the AMOC. The repercussions will be dire on both land and sea.
The video discusses these consequences of AMOC collapse:
- Massive changes in northern hemisphere temperatures
- Jet stream becomes more unstable
- Southward shift of the tropical rain belt
- Massive impacts on the marine ecosystem
- Sea level rise of up to one meter on U.S. east coast
- Reduction in carbon uptake by the oceans
What can humanity do?
If we review these five effects, it is easy to see why warming in the Arctic Circle has the potential to cause the collapse of civilization. The imminent disasters include:
- Sea level rise from Greenland meltwater and AMOC collapse causing the destruction of coastal cities
- Crop failures
- Droughts and floods
- Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels that accelerate global warming even more
- Global weather pattern disruptions
- Marine die offs
All these effects combined together, and interacting with each other, will be enough to cause the collapse.
Like a freight train, we call see all five of the effects approaching. Therefore, what can humanity do to save itself?
The obvious thing for humanity to do is to quickly stop burning fossil fuels. In last week’s article, we discussed why this obvious step is unlikely to happen anytime soon:
A second possibility is for religious people to pray for a volcanic eruption:
The eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 had significant effects on the global climate:
“The powerful eruption of such an enormous volume of lava and ash injected significant quantities of aerosols and dust into the stratosphere. Sulfur dioxide oxidized in the atmosphere to produce a haze of sulfuric acid droplets, which gradually spread throughout the stratosphere over the year following the eruption. The injection of aerosols into the stratosphere is thought to have been the largest since the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa, with a total mass of SO2 of about 17,000,000 t (19,000,000 short tons) being injected – the largest volume ever recorded by modern instruments (see chart and figure). Satellite measurements of ash and aerosol emissions from Mount Pinatubo. This very large stratospheric injection resulted in a volcanic winter, a reduction in the normal amount of sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface by roughly 10% (see figure). This led to a decrease in Northern Hemisphere average temperatures of 0.5–0.6 °C (0.9–1.1 °F) and a global decrease of about 0.4 °C (0.7 °F). The 1991 eruption also caused the “Summer that Wasn’t” in 1992.”
This volcanic winter effect in the range of 0.5 degrees C is what we are looking for. We do not want the eruption to be too big. Too much volcanic winter can cool the planet so much that there are crop failures.
The advantages of a volcanic eruption include: 1) it is free, and 2) it is unstoppable. If a volcano decides to erupt, there is nothing humanity can do to stop it. Unfortunately, we have no way to induce an eruption.
If humanity must keep burning fossil fuels, and if humanity cannot induce a volcanic eruption, what this leaves us with is geoengineering techniques, as described here:
Many people dislike the idea of geoengineering, but they will like the idea of societal collapse due to Arctic overheating even less.
What humanity cannot do is what we are doing right now: standing still and doing nothing of significance about the approaching freight train. Once things like 1) “Blue Ocean events”, 2) “permafrost meltdowns”, and 3) “the collapse of the AMOC” start happening, there is no turning back. And the damage will be catastrophic.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rnpyAWTS9cI – Why is the arctic warming faster than the rest of the planet and why does it matter?
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sEJjgW-qA0k – Gravitas: The Arctic is warming 4 times faster than rest of Earth
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rFwf2qt-uBE – Arctic warming four times faster than rest of Earth, much higher than projections • FRANCE 24
- https://youtu.be/_8Vu0yy2OKI?si=UW8hvlPfDgTyTK6u&t=63 – Arctic Sea Ice is Disappearing at Alarming Rate
- https://youtu.be/qo3cznpfIpA?si=N-yuxEZMlXcrPYpR&t=222 – Blue Ocean Event : Game Over?
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVXGXokI03Y – Expedition to the cold heart of Greenland – What happens in a world without ice? | DW Documentary
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4CXZi-gFgX4 – Is Earth’s Largest Heat Transfer Really Shutting Down?