Ourviesw | The retreat of Arctic ice

Ourviesw | The retreat of Arctic ice

The middle of September is a time of the year when the extent of the Arctic ice pack is minimal. However, 2011 is a different year. This year, the retreat of ice was close to the record set in 2007.

This is not a matter of mere records. The past four years the shrinkage has been significantly higher than the average for the years 1979-2000—a period often used to make such comparisons.

Data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) shows these dramatic changes quite clearly. There are other studies, apart from the NSIDC, that show this trend. Researchers at the University of Bremen in Germany have made a similar conclusion.

It is quite possible now that the decades ahead, if not this decade itself, may witness an “ice-free" summer in the Arctic region. These fears are not unfounded and mere extrapolations of trends seen of late. Models used to predict ice shrinkage are turning out to be inaccurate. In the instant case, for example, the extent of retreat witnessed this year was predicted to occur three decades in the future.

The danger in all this is that an equilibrium established over a very long time is being undone rather quickly. The effects of such large-scale changes are likely to be unpredictable. They are unlikely to be beneficial, however that word is understood.

Can these changes be undone? This is a complicated question. For example, scientific opinion is now close to concluding that ice-free summers are likely in the time ahead. There is simply no time to prevent that change from occurring. What, however, can be done is to slow the man-made processes that can make that change irreversible.

While the scientific results are clearly out of the zone of ambiguity—after decades of wrangling over facts—the political will required to take the steps to slow the effects of climate change is missing. Issues of equity and trust haunt any meaningful global deal. With the current state of the global economy, these are unlikely to get the attention they deserve. After the Copenhagen climate conference of 2009, the level of trust required has never been established. The fault, primarily, lies with Western countries that are now so concerned about the missing ice.

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