yes, the ice caps are melting, but is that bad?

June 2, 2013 — 1 Comment

ice forecast model

According to the stream of reports from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the Arctic ice is slowly but surely disappearing. Well, slowly for us humans. On geologic time scales, it’s thawing in the blink of an eye. For this year, the extent of the ice is the sixth lowest on record, and last year, there was about half as much ice at minimum as there was between 1979 and 2000, while also being much thinner. On the other side of the world, Antarctica is not doing much better as an average of 100 cubic kilometers of ice are lost every year, despite ice sliding into the ocean from dry land seemingly increasing the reach of sea ice. Now, this prompted many denialists to distribute a talking point that while the Arctic is melting, Antarctica is gaining ice, which would be true only if you measure sea ice and forget that there’s an entire continent thawing, sending all that excess ice out to sea. It’s sort of like claiming a virgin birth by forgetting to mention that the couple isn’t married and the child’s father lives across town, visiting every other day.

But all this said, there’s the big question is how bad all this thawing is for us. Sea levels may rise between 16 and 22 feet, changing coastlines and altering climactic cycles over a century. How worried should we be? And is there any way to stop it? Well, exactly how worried you should be would depend on where you live and whether you think another century is too short of a time to move the cities back from the sea. The world is not going to flood as shown in many apocalyptic posters from environmental groups. To drown a city like that would require massive and sudden natural disasters like asteroid impacts or a magnitude 9.1 quake that triggers a monster tsunami and sends it towards a city built mostly below sea level. No city planner 30 or 70 years from now would be dealing with the same exact coastlines, and old buildings could be moved or altered to deal with the rising water. Of course, if we didn’t emit nearly as much carbon dioxide by building our economies around energy efficiency, we could just avoid all of that in the first place.

Though, just to play Devil’s advocate, there’s an interesting point that needs to be raised. New economies and infrastructures are expensive. Very expensive. And the thawing Arctic means a shorter path between Europe, Asia, and North America than the Panama Canal. Goods can get to their destinations cheaper, new fiber can be laid for a faster, more redundant internet, and a lot of oil and natural gas will be open to exploration far away from the Middle East. And while as the United States and Canada extract more and more oil from the Arctic, OPEC could just lower production to keep prices high, the political ramifications are huge and to many, worth perusing. Is potential energy independence that will let the United States disentangle itself from the Middle East and its messy affairs, while creating new jobs and cozy ties with its neighbors worth moving some big cities back from the rising seas? And do the improved economics of fast, new shipping lanes and extra fiber-optic cables just sweeten the deal to let it all melt?

Before we get carried away though, there is a downside to such strategic terraforming. Warmer climates mean more droughts in areas that are now among the world’s bread baskets, and a lot less food. In some countries, which produce far more food than they can consume or send over as aid, this isn’t a pressing issue. But in countries not producing enough, or just barely enough to get by, famines could easily reemerge because the farmlands couldn’t be moved to land that belongs to another state. For nations on good terms, there might be a deal in the making. For countries that view each other as an existential threat (like India and Pakistan), not so much. Oh and bad news for foodies. When food sources become any scarcer in a warmer world, the only viable response is doubling down on hyper-efficient factory farms that employ methods that can drive a panel of Food Network chefs up a wall. Point is that your experience with the effects of a warmer Earth may vary depending on many factors, but deciding how to manage the warming is not as cut and dry as a yes or a no, there’s an economic and geopolitical calculus involved…

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  • TheBrett

    Oh and bad news for foodies. When food sources become any scarcer in a warmer world, the only viable response is doubling down on hyper-efficient factory farms that employ methods that can drive a panel of Food Network chefs up a wall.

    There will be some of that, but also a lot of greenhouse agriculture to give back some happiness to the foodies. The greenhouse/hydroponic/aeroponic agriculture will be especially important if some of the big agricultural areas turn into deserts, since just warming up far northern areas like northern Canada and Siberia won’t be enough to turn them into great farmland (you need good topsoil and/or lots of fertilizer).

    No city planner 30 or 70 years from now would be dealing with the same exact coastlines, and old buildings could be moved or altered to deal with the rising water.

    Or they’ll do land-works to protect the city, like sea barriers and filling in rising sea areas (which they’ve done in Boston over the past couple hundred years to turn harbor area into new land). The real killer is with the water table and flooding into the subway, which will be difficult to deal with rising seas. They might just have to abandon and seal off sections of it.