State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Sustainable Development Seminar Series: A New Record Low in Arctic Sea Ice Extent

On September 19th, the Earth Institute’s Sustainable Development Seminar Series began for the 2012-2013 academic year with “A New Record Low in Arctic Sea Ice Extent.” The first seminar topic brought together a group of Columbia University climate experts and gave them the opportunity to respond to recent Arctic ice findings released by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The expert panelists came from multidisciplinary academic backgrounds, but their knowledge coalesced around how the Arctic is rapidly transforming with current and future climatic and geopolitical implications.

Experts included moderator Stephanie Pfirman, Hirschorn Professor and Department Chair of Environmental Science at Barnard College;  Peter Schlosser, Deputy Director of the Earth Institute and Vinton Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering; Anne R. Siders, Postdoctoral Research Scholar at the Center for Climate Change Law; and Benjamin Orlove, Senior Research Scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society and co-Director of the Master of Arts Climate and Society program.

The conversation began as Pfirman pointed to what the NSIDC had announced earlier that day, which was that the Arctic sea ice had reached the lowest extent for the year and had melted to an area of 3.41 million sq. km. This was less than half of the annual minimum of 8 million sq. km. when Pfirman first began her search in the Arctic region during the 1980s. Pfirman indicated that “while the spatial distribution of ice will continue to shrink in the region, a warmer Arctic does not entail a land where all the summer ice is lost, at least not for now.” Winds are continuing to compress ice into areas north of Canada and Greenland where potential refuge for wildlife could be managed as the Arctic becomes ice-free, Pfirman explained.

Pfirman explained that since 2001, it has been recognized that the Arctic plays an integral role in the Earth’s climate system due to positive feedback mechanisms. She then posed the question of what these changes actually mean, and Peter Schlosser responded that “ice sheets are melting from above and below as air and water temperatures rise in unison. For example, in August of 2012, a powerful storm enabled the rapid melting of an ice sheet approximately the size of Texas, and during a brief span in July, satellite observations showed the entire surface of Greenland was melting for the first time in 30 years.” Schlosser continued to point out that the effects of a warming planet are occurring in different locations every year, thereby increasing the frequency of extreme weather events and highlighting the interconnectedness of the different elements of the Earth’s climate.

Anne Siders, a former Presidential Management Fellow with the U.S. Navy, explained that warming has spurred Arctic development in the form of fishing, tourism, and oil exploration, along with an exponential increase in ships utilizing the Northern Sea Route (NSR). She emphasized that from 1906 -2006 only 69 ships navigated the NSR and that in 2011 alone, 22 ships passed through. Even with an increased melt, the route is a dangerous pursuit for ships. Siders explained, “It’s cold, dark, there are ice storms and it’s isolated.”

After highlighting the implications of Arctic sea ice change, Pfirman turned to Ben Orlove to address how society and policymakers will perceive the changes in the Arctic. “People often pay attention to ideas that are more concrete, things that are taking place here and now,” Orlove responded. “Therefore scientists must strive to communicate their findings through phraseology that grabs the attention of the average person, using “lowest ever recorded” in favor of “a new low” is more effective when describing Arctic ice extent as it expands the scope of time for the reader,” he says. Orlove believes that an important aspect of stimulating public attention is to bridge the science and policy communication gap, adding that for policymakers “it’s good to emphasize the immediate and the distant.”

The seminar established that public awareness has been and will continue to be an integral component to the success of creating a mind shift about the impact that the Arctic can have on global climate patterns and changes. The immediacy of change in the Arctic is dependent upon the world’s capacity to mitigate the effects of anthropogenic activity and to reserve the region from vast development.  Along with community engagement and education programs funded by the National Science Foundation, Pfirman concluded that policy, practice, and development are needed to influence current and future generations on the risk of environmental hazards.

The Sustainable Development Seminar Series is open to the public and is an initiative led by Peter Schlosser, Earth Institute Deputy Director, and Lex van Geen, Doherty Senior Research Scientist.  Please see our event calendar for future seminar topics.


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