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The Arctic Sea Ice is Melting: What Does This Mean For Us?

Updated on October 2, 2012
A map showing Arctic sea ice on August 26 2012, the line on the image shows the average minimum ice cover from 1979-2010, as measured by satellites
A map showing Arctic sea ice on August 26 2012, the line on the image shows the average minimum ice cover from 1979-2010, as measured by satellites | Source

Many of us have heard about it in the news and some friends may have even mentioned it to you: The recent reports about how the Arctic ice is melting. Without understanding the planet, or how our environment depends on this ice, the fact that it's melting may not mean a whole lot to you. In fact, you may not be concerned at at all.

That's understandable because we all don't follow stuff like this everyday, and honestly, the campaign to cover up climate change did a pretty good job for a couple of decades. Unfortunately now though, the cat is out of the bag - we are not only facing the consequences of our indecision's and inaction but we are now facing natural weather related disasters of an untold scope - in the U.S. alone extreme weather events have already caused over 55 billion dollars of damage in just this year. Much of this is related to the fact that the Arctic ice is melting.

How is the Arctic important to us?

So what roie exactly does the Arctic ice play in the planets existence? The Arctic area serves many purposes:

  • Arctic ice influences atmospheric circulation and, hence, weather and most importantly, climate.
  • The Arctic is home to many species of animals, including Polar Bears, Snowy Owls and Wolverines (some of these species are now considered endangered)
  • The Arctic is also inhabited by several different groups of indigenous people, and also by relatively recent immigrants of mostly European background. Indigenous populations now range from about 80% in Greenland, 50% in Canada, 20% in Alaska, 15% in Arctic Norway and as little as 3-4% in Arctic Russia. All in all, the population of the Arctic region is estimated to be about 4 million people.

Arctic sea-ice in September 1979 and 2007, showing the biggest reduction since satellite surveillance began.
Arctic sea-ice in September 1979 and 2007, showing the biggest reduction since satellite surveillance began. | Source

The effects of the Arctic ice melting

The effects of the Arctic ice melting are pretty staggering - and the pace that the Arctic ice is melting at is alarming scientists and climatologists alike. Just within the last few years, the Arctic ice has continued to shatter records for ice melt. It's now estimated that the Arctic ice level is at its lowest level in 1 million years.

This comes from noted sea ice geophysicist and climatologist Professor John Yackel from the University of Calgary who goes onto say "This is the smallest minimum ice extent we've ever had, and not just in the satellite record, but probably in the last million years."

Yes, 1 million years. Pretty scary stuff - considering we can't go back that far and ask the animals or people what a heating Earth felt like back then. On the photo above to the right, you can see the drastic amount of ice that has melted between the years 1979 and 2007 (taken through satellite imagery)

With this rapid melting of ice in the Arctic, here are some of the effects we will have (and some we already experiencing):

  • More severe weather extremes: Hurricanes, storms and derechos (windstorms), flooding, fires (caused by warmer weather), droughts, tornadoes, landslides and typhoons.
  • Rising sea levels. According to a recent study, ocean levels south of Humboldt County in California will rise up to 1 foot in the next 20 years, 2 feet by 2050, and up to 5 feet by 2100 (and this could be a conservative expectation at this moment) The seas will rise worldwide as a result of the melting ice.
  • Loss of habitat for not only the animals that live in the Arctic but more importantly the indigenous people that call the Arctic home (this is already happening)
  • A probable slowing and perhaps stoppage of the thermohaline loop that serves sort of like a "conveyor belt" to move water throughout the world.The thermohaline circulation plays an important role in supplying heat to the polar regions, and thus in regulating the amount of sea ice in these regions. This conveyor belt slowing or stopping will lead to irreversible and catastrophic damage to the Earth and its inhabitants.


This map shows the pattern of thermohaline circulation also known as "meridional overturning circulation". This collection of currents is responsible for the large-scale exchange of water masses in the ocean, including providing oxygen to the deep oc
This map shows the pattern of thermohaline circulation also known as "meridional overturning circulation". This collection of currents is responsible for the large-scale exchange of water masses in the ocean, including providing oxygen to the deep oc | Source
Methane leaking through the cracks in the Arctic - NASA Earth Observatory
Methane leaking through the cracks in the Arctic - NASA Earth Observatory | Source

The rise of methane

Since 1750, atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas methane have increased more than 150% (Figure 4). The primary sources of the man-made methane added to the atmosphere are rice cultivation, ruminant livestock, landfill out-gassing, oil and
Since 1750, atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas methane have increased more than 150% (Figure 4). The primary sources of the man-made methane added to the atmosphere are rice cultivation, ruminant livestock, landfill out-gassing, oil and | Source

Methane rising from the ocean floor

Methane plumes are observed rising from the seafloor.
Methane plumes are observed rising from the seafloor. | Source

Playing with the unknown

Perhaps the most frightening effect we could experience from the Arctic ice melting is the release of methane gas which is trapped beneath the Arctic ice in permafrost. Right now it's estimated that there are already 48 million tons of methane entering our atmosphere from eastern Siberian permafrost alone each year.

Methane gas is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more powerful than carbon dioxide,

Those tons of methane that are being released are coming from over 150,000 methane "seeps" that have been found beside melting glaciers and near melting permafrost. These seeps of methane could have a massive impact on global warming and cause a “planetary emergency”, according to scientists.

Meteorologist Lord (Julian) Hunt said that some in the scientific community have been reluctant to discuss the possibility of a catastrophic release of the potent gas. “There is quite a lot of suppression and non-discussion of issues that are difficult, and one of those is in fact methane," he said.

Because the sea ice is white, it reflects 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it back into space. When sea ice melts, the darker ocean below the ice absorbs about 90 percent of the energy. This cycle, once started, ends up melting even more ice as the oceans warm. This in turn releases methane from the permafrost and Co2 which will lead to more global warming and higher temperatures here on Earth.

Once established, which seems to be happening now, a vicious cycle of warming is created on the planet. What exactly will happen if a catastrophic release of methane happens is one of those things that is not only hard to digest but hard to even talk about or comprehend.

A massive explosion of methane gas erupting from the ocean depths may have caused the Earth’s biggest massive extinction 251 million years ago, according to U.S. geologists.

What is unknown is exactly how this methane escaping into our atmosphere will affect us and our existence here on Earth. Addressing this growing threat is perhaps one of the most important things that our world governments should be looking long and hard at right now.

Dorsi Diaz is the climate change reporter for the San Francisco Examiner online. To follow her and find out the latest news on climate change you can go here and subscribe to Dorsi's RSS feed. She writes reports on how the climate is affecting the Earth, reports on the drought and on food shortages caused by climate change. She also reports on ongoing extreme weather events from around the world.

The global warming effect of Arctic methane

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  • B. Leekley profile image

    Brian Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

    According to the Los Angeles Times multimedia online series Altered Oceans, adapting means eating jellyfish instead of shrimp and fish.

    Is this karma?

  • Dorsi profile image
    Author

    Dorsi Diaz 4 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

    @B) Sorry for the late reply but this is an important question you ask: In fact it's the probably the million dollar question of the century. B, because of the slow response from our government and other countries to address climate change, I don't think there is a whole lot that can be done now, sad to say. We are seeing the consequences of our inaction. At a recent convention I attended (the AGU in SF) at a press conference on climate change, I got the impression that we are still a long ways away from coming to a consensus on whether we should even use geo-engineering to slow down this climate trend. And the head of the NOAA made it very clear that we are now living in a climate altered world. I think now it's going to be about adaptation. And if the methane continues to be released the way it is, adaptation may have to come very very fast.

  • B. Leekley profile image

    Brian Leekley 4 years ago from Kalamazoo, Michigan, USA

    Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers and on social networking sites.

    So if world leaders asked you to recommend a stop global warming now plan of action, what would you say needs doing?

  • Curiad profile image

    Mark G Weller 4 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

  • Dorsi profile image
    Author

    Dorsi Diaz 4 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

    @spartucusjones) Thank you spartucus. I do the best I can. This is such a critical issue, life-threatening really.

    @Curiad) Thanks Curiad, I'll have to pop over and read it. Feel free to leave the hub link here in the comments, and I'll link back to yours also. The more awareness the better!

  • Curiad profile image

    Mark G Weller 5 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

    I linked to this Hub in my Global Warming Hub Dorsi!

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 5 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Well researched and informative hub! Thanks for drawing attention to a very important issue. It is so easy for people to lose sight that the melting of the Arctic Sight affects us, because it is so remove from our day to day activities. It is important that individuals like yourself are promoting awareness.

  • Dorsi profile image
    Author

    Dorsi Diaz 5 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

    @mperrottet) Thank you and your welcome!

    @SkeetyD) Thanks and yes, the signs are becoming more apparent, aren't they?

    @Lawrence Da-vid) Actually, the Antarctic not melting as fast as the Arctic is not surprising to the climate scientists. There are different variables going into the equation, and the problem with methane in the Arctic is that there are tons of it locked up in the permafrost. Thanks for reading.

    @Curiad) Thanks for the input. This is true.

  • Curiad profile image

    Mark G Weller 5 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

    Actually Lawrence, a simple google search will reveal that the Ice shelves in antarctica are less than 15% of what they were 17-20 years ago. This information comes from NASA satellite images and EESL images.

    Global warming is real and a major issue no matter how many differing reasons there may be for it to be happening.

  • Lawrence Da-vid profile image

    Lawrence Da-vid 5 years ago

    Fascinating article....however, the decrease in arctic ice might seem alarming, but what is not being considered, is the antarctic ice that is increasing at double the volume. Methane gas? consider all the decaying material throughout the planet that produces this gas. Some blame the abundant supply of 4 legged creatures for their gas.....but never consider the methane gas produced by the overpopulation of people on this planet. Still others place blame on carbon dioxide. Plants utilize carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, but plants also give off carbon dioxide at night. All life forms on the planet give off carbon dioxide. What is not being considered is the alternative.

  • SkeetyD profile image

    SkeetyD 5 years ago from Barbados

    This hub is very informative and the possible outcomes of the arctic ice melting are frightening and shocking. The fate of this beautiful planet is very uncertain and we should all pay heed to the disturbing signs all around us.

  • PurvisBobbi44 profile image

    PurvisBobbi44 5 years ago from Florida

    Thanks Dorsi,

    This is an informative hub and your research proved effective, as I felt I was hearing it over the news.

    This is also a very scary for the future of our earth. I pray something will happen to stop this melting of earth's ice.

    Thanks for this article it makes one stop and appreciate what we have today.

    Bobbi Purvis

  • mperrottet profile image

    Margaret Perrottet 5 years ago from Pennsauken, NJ

    I've been concerned for a long time about climate change, but didn't realize these startling facts about methane gas. This is a great hub, with important facts. Voting up, interesting, useful and sharing!

  • Dorsi profile image
    Author

    Dorsi Diaz 5 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

    Thanks Mazio and Curiad!

  • Curiad profile image

    Mark G Weller 5 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

    Yes, I'll be there too!

  • MazioCreate profile image

    MazioCreate 5 years ago from Brisbane Queensland Australia

    Penguins can do that to you Dorsi. Good luck with the petition. Not sure an Aussie's signature would help the cause, but if non US citizens can sign it, I'll be there.

  • Dorsi profile image
    Author

    Dorsi Diaz 5 years ago from The San Francisco Bay Area

    prasetio30, Seeker7, Gordon Hamilton, Deborah Brooks, Jerry Hulse, bdegiulio, MazioCreate and Curiad) Thank you all for reading and I am answering this as a group message because this is such an important topic that we need to take this as far and wide as we can. There are things that can be done through engineering but time is short and we must get the word out that this is an absolute crisis. Us writers have the power to reach the masses and this is literally regarding our survival as a species. Don't be swayed by those that are still confused that climate change is something to argue about. It's non-debatable and only takes away from the seriousness of the situation, While most of the world is asleep on these things (about 95% of them) we have the ability to do something about this now that we are informed. I am working with someone on a White House petition that is going to need 25,000 signatures and need your support to get that out when it's drafted. We must come together now, all nations to address this growing emergency. And thanks Mazio for pointing that out. I'm also working on an Antarctica hub and got my penguins put in the wrong place! Thanks everyone.

  • Curiad profile image

    Mark G Weller 5 years ago from Lake Charles, LA.

    This is well written and interesting. I have a hub on Global Warming as well and it is amazing the arguments in the comments from "Non Believers."

    Well done Dorsi!

  • MazioCreate profile image

    MazioCreate 5 years ago from Brisbane Queensland Australia

    Very interesting and sobering jub Dorsi. Some startling information about the reduction in the polar ice-cap and the release of methane gas. I didn't know about the latter. I would however, like to bring to your attention the fact that penguins do not live in the Arctic zone, they only live in the Southern Hemisphere. I thought you would like to edit the hub so it only contained relevant and correct information. Liked & shared!

  • bdegiulio profile image

    Bill De Giulio 5 years ago from Massachusetts

    Dorsi, very, very interesting and eye-opening hub. Very well written and researched. How sad that our apathy could result in tragic changes to our planet. Great job. VU and sharing.

  • Jerry Hulse profile image

    Jerry W Hulse 5 years ago from Kingsport, Tennessee

    Wow, Is Someone above trying to tell us something?

  • Deborah Brooks profile image

    Deborah Brooks Langford 5 years ago from Brownsville,TX

    wow this hub is so interesting. I have seen this on history channel i think it was.. your info is great.. It is scary.. wish people would listen and heed. Bless you for writing this

    sharing

    debbie

  • Gordon Hamilton profile image

    Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

    Fabulous Hub, very well researched and informative. Although many scientists put this effect down to natural fluctuations in planetary development, there is no doubt that mankind's activities must be playing some part in it. Sadly, the overwhelming majority of people (saw one show on UK's National Geographic channel putting the figure at more than ninety-five percent) are not interested enough to help do anything about it... Words fail me...

  • Seeker7 profile image

    Helen Murphy Howell 5 years ago from Fife, Scotland

    An excellent hub Dorsi! I write a lot about scary stuff like the paranormal - but nothing is as frightening as what is happening to our beautiful planet, the wildlife and of course the many people who are affected. The scariest part is the methane gas and the how much the levels of this gas continue to rise.

    A very informative and sobering hub - voted up + shared!

  • prasetio30 profile image

    prasetio30 5 years ago from malang-indonesia

    Very inspiring hub. I learn many things from you. We life in beautiful earth. We should keep the earth wisely. We don't want the arctic sea melting., right. Thank you very much for writing and share with us. Good job, Dorsi. Voted up!

    Prasetio