Our dangerous addiction to fossil fuels is melting the Arctic. According to a new study in Science, for every ton of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere, we lose 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice. The EPA estimates that total US emissions in 2014 was 6,870 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent, so that would have caused 219,840 square feet of Arctic sea ice to vanish. The average American emits more than 16 metric tons of carbon each year, according to the World Bank, amounting to 512 square feet of lost Arctic sea ice. The study’s lead author Dirk Notz, a climate scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany, calculates that 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice melts for every person who drives a car 1,000 miles or takes a round-trip flight from New York to London.
“This makes it possible to intuitively grasp how we all contribute to global warming,” said Notz. “It’s really possible to translate how individual actions contribute to sea-ice loss.” Co-author Julienne Stroever, a senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, said the results of the study take climate change from an abstract notion to something that is concrete.
The Arctic acts as the Earth’s refrigerator with sea ice regulating the global climate system by reflecting sunlight back into space. But the Arctic is rapidly warming, leading to an alarming retreat of sea ice that is causing the Arctic to absorb more solar radiation. A warming Arctic alters planetary weather and ocean patterns. At some point, perhaps sooner than later, there will be a blue ocean event, an ice-free Arctic Ocean during summer that could further destabilize the global climate system and trigger feedbacks that accelerate global warming such as the release of seabed methane from the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean.
The study predicts that another 1,000 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions will cause the sea ice to disappear throughout September, the lowest month each year for Arctic sea ice. However, there is a silver lining in the research. If emissions are brought down in an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as the Paris climate agreement has called for, Arctic sea ice loss and the associated impact to the global climate system could be slowed down.
The authors write that “our results also imply that any measure taken to mitigate CO2 emissions will directly slow down the ongoing loss of Arctic summer sea ice.”
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