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Michael Jansen: Nature’s fury
March 09, 2018
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Northern Europe and North America were battered by icy winds and smothered by snow last weekend while the Arctic basked in an unprecedented heat wave. Temperatures in Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Germany and the northeast US plunged well below freezing as the thermometer registered 6 degree Celsius above freezing in the Arctic Circle. This was 20 degrees above normal. Although it has been the third warmest winter in the Arctic for decades, this was the first time the temperature rose above freezing. In earlier years temperatures had risen but remained below freezing.

 The Guardian’s global environment editor, Jonathan Watts, wrote that warm weather in the Arctic and Greenland had been exchanged for harsh weather in Europe. This was precisely what happened. The warming of the Arctic is caused by the weakening of freezing circular winds that protect the Arctic Circle from rising temperatures, drawing in warm air which expels the cold air towards Europe, North America and Asia.

During the brutal cold snaps in Europe and North America, normal life came to a halt. Schools and shops closed, public transport halted, highways were blocked by snow drifts and rendered dangerous by ice and electricity and water supplies were cut. Homes along the US Atlantic coast were flooded. Canals in Amsterdam froze, allowing residents to skate around the city. In central Paris, children romped in the snow. Snow fell as far south as Rome for the first time in six years. 

In Britain and Ireland the authorities declared “red alerts.” Residents were warned to stay at home while homeless people sheltered in mosques, churches, railway and bus stations, and other public buildings.  If forced to make a car journey, people were told to take blankets, hot drinks, and shovels. Travellers were stuck in traffic for hours along intercity highways. Some cars had to be dug out of drifts.

In the US, train service between New York and Washington were suspended and flights from east coast airports were cancelled. As much as 46 centimetres of snow were dumped on parts of New York state and Pennsylvania. 

Temperature rises and falls are common even in the normally frozen Arctic, but the current spike, combined with rising global temperatures, shows that climate change is taking place at a more rapid rate than scientists had predicted.

The northernmost weather station at Cape Morris Jessup in Greenland — the world’s largest island located in the Arctic Circle — marked 61 hours above freezing, three times the figure for previous years. Greenland’s glaciers — which have the only permanent ice sheet other than that in Antarctica — are thawing. Glaciers and snow caps on mountains are disappearing rapidly. Glaciers in the Himalayas in India are melting so swiftly they could disappear by 2035. 

Consequently, water pouring into the world’s seas could swamp coastal cities in Europe, Asia and North America. Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta, Tokyo, and New York are all at risk of flooding while south Pacific islands could disappear altogether. Rising waters could be disastrous for the Netherlands, a country reclaimed from the sea and half below sea level.

The effects of the warm winter, compounded by the heat wave, include melting of Arctic sea ice that should cover a vast expanse of water and at its thickest but has shrunk to its lowest extent. The ice is at its thinnest since records began to be kept in 1979. North of Greenland and in the Bering Sea off the US state of Alaska there are large areas of open sea. As sea ice formerly cooled warmer winds over the Arctic and kept temperatures low, the reduction of sea ice means this does not happen. The warmer the air and water, the more rapidly the sea ice melts. Last year was the worst, so far, for the thawing of sea ice. The most rapid decline in Arctic sea ice in 1,500 years has taken place in recent years.

Such high temperatures in the Arctic have not occurred since the late 1950s. They are now being sustained for longer periods than ever before. Events formerly considered unusual have become the new normal. “The risk of an ice-free Arctic in summer is about 50 per cent or higher,” stated a leaked draft of a report by a panel of scientists, cited by Reuters news agency.

Global warming has contributed to the Arctic melt down and can be expected to continue raising temperatures in the Arctic in both winter and summer, causing further melting and shrinkage of the ice cap. Uncovering the vegetation beneath the ice releases methane, a gas contributing to global warming. Countries around the world will suffer rising average temperatures and more frequent and longer lasting heat waves.

A tragic video of a starving polar bear taken last December prompted scientists to investigate the situation of these Arctic mammals. Diminishing sea ice leaves polar bears and seals without prey. Without sea ice polar bears’ habitat shrinks and they cannot catch and eat fat-rich mammals, such as ringed seals, to sustain life in the bleak Arctic. They hunt by standing at the edge of an ice flow, waiting until seals come to the surface for air. The bears smack the seals on the head to stun them before pulling them onto the ice and consuming them. If there is no sea ice, polar bears have to walk or swim long distances to find seals. They lose weight and muscle and cannot replace it. They starve. 

The lack of sea ice could cut the polar bear population from 20-25,000 to less than 10,000 by 2050.

To make matters worse, the shrinking ice cap could open the region to shipping, fishing and mining, enabling mankind to pollute and destroy the fragile roof of a planet already endangered by destructive human activity.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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