This holiday season the Arctic is making news, and not just because Santa is sitting up there making his list and checking it twice.
In a move to protect our planet for future generations, and an act that further solidified his legacy as a champion for the climate, President Obama has permanently banned new offshore drilling in roughly 98% of federally owned Arctic waters and 3.8 million acres around a series of coral canyons along the Atlantic Coast. President Obama used a provision in the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act that allows presidents to make federal waters off-limits to oil and gas drilling. Because he used a provision of existing law, it would require a new act of Congress to un-do. NextGen Climate America Founder Tom Steyer called the move both “historic and heroic.” Protecting our arctic environment from oil and gas exploration is essential to maintain a healthy climate, and the latest data show we are teetering on the brink.
As Bob Henson of Weather Underground said “There are weather and climate records, and then there are truly exceptional events that leave all others in the dust. Such has been the case across Earth’s high latitudes during this last quarter of 2016.” Global sea ice area has dramatically plummeted to record lows in both the arctic and antarctic this year. In mid-November, the difference in arctic sea ice extent between this year and the next lowest-year (2012) was 582,000 square kilometers, an area about a third larger than California. In the Antarctic, it was even more dramatic: sea ice extent was over a million square kilometers less than its lowest previous year (1986). Together, the normalized value of global sea ice area was a staggering eight standard deviations below the 37-year average.*
Cold air that usually sits over the pole this time of year has moved south to Siberia bringing warmer air north. This shifting of polar weather has made temperatures at the poles much warmer than usual — melting sea ice when it is supposed to be forming. Temperatures at the North Pole are expected to be 40-50 degrees fahrenheit above average on Christmas this year – approaching the 32 degree melting point. This change in the polar vortex can create unusually cold weather in other places. (Chicago last week for example, was actually colder than Mars!) All of this is a sign of a warming planet.
Why is Sea Ice Important?
Sea ice increases the amount of sunlight that is reflected off the earth’s surface, which helps to keep our planet cool. The more area covered by bright white sea ice, the more heat is reflected back into space. As ice melts, the area once covered by white ice is now much darker so it absorbs more heat. This extra heat, in turn melts more ice – a dangerous feedback loop that dramatically amplifies the effect of extra heat-trapping pollution in our atmosphere.
But this is just one feedback loop among many connected to melting sea ice. For example, melting sea ice also changes the salinity of the ocean, which affects ocean currents, which affect global weather patterns. The impacts of arctic ice loss are also seen in loss of wildlife and native habitat, unlocking frozen methane stores, and damaging Arctic storms. Bottom line: a stable climate requires sea ice.
The Battle Ahead
President Obama’s move to permanently ban drilling in some federally owned waters is a victory for anyone who values a livable planet, but the battle to protect our Arctic is entering a dangerous new phase. Donald Trump has nominated an entire cabinet of people who have long and established careers working against the very institutions they have been chosen to lead. Almost all of Trump’s proposed cabinet members deny the science of climate change and have worked to block climate action. This group includes Exxon CEO and official “Friend” of Vladimir Putin, Rex Tillerson, who Trump has nominated as Secretary of State. Tillerson has traveled the planet trying to open up new territory for oil and gas exploration, including in Arctic waters. Now Trump wants him to represent the United States in the same setting where our current Secretary, John Kerry, signed the historic Paris agreement to fight climate change.
A report released earlier this month by the Stockholm Environmental Institute shows that offshore drilling is fundamentally inconsistent with our global climate goals. Thankfully the U.S. currently has sanctions against Russia that have prevented Tillerson and Exxon from breaking ground on new drilling projects in Siberia. But if Tillerson is confirmed as Secretary of State, those sanctions, the sanctity of the Arctic and the stability of our climate will be in jeopardy.
*If the amount of global sea ice was a normal, random distribution, the odds of being eight standard deviations away from the mean is roughly equivalent to flipping a coin and having it come up heads 49 times in a row. It is so far off the average that it is nearly impossible without some external influencer, in this case: climate change.