Thirteen U.S. government agencies have just issued an alarming new report predicting that global warming, if allowed to continue unabated, will shrink the American economy by 10 percent by 2100, amid environmental impacts that are, if anything, even more dire. The White House tried to bury the report by releasing it on Friday during the holiday weekend, and President Donald Trump announced he didn’t “believe it.” But its conclusions are inescapable. One need only travel to the Arctic, ground zero for climate change, to see them starting to play out.
The top of the world is now warming at twice the average global rate. You’ve likely seen the graphs and stats: Last winter, maximum sea-ice cover narrowly missed being the smallest ever recorded—a dubious honor that goes to the winter of 2016-17. The two previous winters’ ice packs were the next smallest. Since 1979, peak sea-ice coverage has fallen from about 6.5 million to 5.5 million square miles.
At the dawn of the 20th century, it took the great polar explorer Roald Amundsen three years and three icebound winters to sail the fabled Northwest Passage at the top of the continent. Today ships steam right through, and forecasters predict that the entire Arctic Ocean may be ice-free in summer 2050. This is giddy news if you’re a shipper looking for a cheaper route from the factories of China to the malls of Atlantic America and the hypermarkets of Europe. Not so if you’re a narwhal or bowhead whale, two of the species that will likely suffer most from the snowpack’s decline and disappearance—thanks to both the loss of a food web based in the algae that grow under the ice and the arrival of predatory killer whales, which the ice now excludes.
The changes that warming is bringing to the Arctic affect much more than a couple of exotic whale species; they are transforming the region’s lands as well as waters. For creatures as various as majestic caribou, diminutive seabirds and humans here and around the world, the results are dire. For these species, freezing means life, and new thaw—along with the billions of tons of carbon that will be released when it comes—threatens disaster. [Continue reading…]