Political Animal


September 09, 2012 8:23 AM Arctic Ice Melt Record Being Smashed

By Ryan Cooper


Above you can see the sea ice extent so far (chart via Angry Bear). We’ve already crushed the 2007 record, and still have a week or so to go before hitting the usual minimum time.

It’s hard to think of anything to say about this, aside from the usual creeping panic, but I did have one thought. According to Climate Central, shippers are already cruising through the open Arctic lanes. (Also, oil companies are getting set to start drilling there as well. If climate change is to be prevented, they must be stopped.) But below you can see a picture of sea ice extent in 2007, the previous record low (I couldn’t find a good picture of 2012.)


You can see that the ice extent is anchored around northern Greenland and the big islands of northern Canada and Russia, and therefore the North Pole is not that far from the edge of the melt. Therefore it looks likely that the North Pole will become ice-free in the summer long before the entire Arctic does.

This isn’t a scientific point really, it’s a political one. A completely ice free North Pole could be the kind of climate Pearl Harbor-style event that shocks the system into action. Even though Republicans are now more committed to climate denial than ever, climate hawks should be ready to seize such a striking demonstration of the reality of what we’re facing. When it happens (and it looks like a matter of years), James Inhofe should be walloped with that fact every time he steps out of his door.

For some in-depth science on the subject, as well as a debunking of the usual denier caucus, see Climate Progress.


Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper


  • c u n d gulag on September 09, 2012 9:50 AM:

    It's rapidly coming to the point where we'll either need to hope for, or create the circumstances that make, 1-3 large volcano's explode.
    One in each hemisphere, and maybe one along the Equator.

    I know this sounds kind of silly, if not downright idiotic, but I think it's a bit too late to do things that might have worked, had we only started doing them a couple of decades ago - like when Jimmy Carter talked about the need for conservation of energy, back in the late 70's.

    I'd be curious as to what others think might work.

    And of course, I'm not discounting conservation efforts - I just think it's a case of too little, too late.

  • Neildsmith on September 09, 2012 9:58 AM:

    I thought Ryan was feeling more upbeat today.

    Please everyone, stop having so many children.

    I wouldn't worry about the GOP. As soon as they regain power, they will do something about all our problems. Their obstruction is a short term political maneuver. They will put a gun to our heads and threaten to pull the trigger until we vote them back into office. What's it worth to you?

  • dalloway on September 09, 2012 10:20 AM:

    The problem is that even if the entire Arctic ice cap melts, right wingers will still respond with "So what?" If the sea rises and drowns New York, for them it only means fewer liberal Democrats. The right wing will never admit the reality of climate change. The only way to do something about it is to ensure that the right wing is kept out of power and so diminished it can't obstruct measures to save all our lives.

  • Kathryn on September 09, 2012 10:42 AM:

    Ryan, hope you are monitoring MTP this morning for those of us who can't stomach watching Romney, hoping for an epic fail, though I have NO confidence in David Gregory, thus, I can't watch. Would welcome comments from more mature commenters who do watch. I personally woke up at 3:45 a,m, stressing over a man named Mohammed I registered to vote yesterday who thinks that he might gain monetarily if the GOP wins and brings on a recession by cutting government spending or something like that. I hope he sleeps in on November 6. Suggested he watch the debates and ask him how he feels about more war in the Middle East (Syria, Iran), he wasn't in favor of that. I think this is a potent argument for Obama/Biden if they can reach the consciousness of the electorate which is somewhat doubtful.

  • Davis X. Machina on September 09, 2012 11:22 AM:

    "If the sea rises and drowns New York, for them it only means fewer liberal Democrats."

    That's where Wall Street is. Luckily, Jesus will have returned before the water in lower Manhattan is more than calf-deep.

    OK, thigh-deep, maybe. But no deeper. I promise.

    And did you ever wonder why the rate on ten-year Treasuries are so low? Well, now you know.

  • rfb99 on September 09, 2012 11:41 AM:

    I understand that change is scary, but the great fear of a warming climate is borderline irrational. Some perhaps many species will diminish or become extinct, but other species will thrive. Maybe polar bears will disappear, but black bears take their place. In fact humans may benefit due to the enormous new agricultural capability of Siberia and Canada. I also understand that Pacific Islanders for example may have to leave their homelands or perish but many other peoples have disappeared in the past and others will in the future. It sounds unfeeling but a particular society's decline is not a tragedy for mankind but is simply a failed response to change.

  • N.Wells on September 09, 2012 11:43 AM:

    As soon as the ice over the North Pole melts, I'm in favor of helicoptering the most prominent Global Warming deniers up to the pole, and dumping them out of the helicopter with a pair of skis, warm clothes, a tent, and a ton of food, with the encouraging words that we'll come back for them in a week, and that any water they might encounter should simply be denied as imaginary.

  • schtick on September 09, 2012 12:06 PM:

    The party of cheat, lie and deny should care about the artic melting, why? The only way they will care is if they can make a million on it, TODAY. Otherwise, let the treehuggers worry. They'll just paint the oil rigs so they look like trees.

  • N.Wells on September 09, 2012 1:37 PM:

    To rfb99: I'm a geologist, so I certainly know that nothing is permanent, neither climate, nor coastlines, nor civilizations, nor species. And yes, change can bring some opportunities to those who can adapt, and humans have lived through some fairly large changes already (during the Medieval Warm Period, England made wine, and during the Little Ice Age, the English held winter ice fairs on the Thames, and the English are still with us nonetheless). However, you are glossing over tremendous and entirely unnecessary misery, expense, and conflict while we rebuild most or all of our coastal cities, figure out anew what crops we can grow and where, and figure out how to PEACEFULLY adapt our societies to accommodate desertification of some countries. If Middle Eastern or sub-Saharan countries dry out substantially, are all those countries going to accept their fates quietly and die off calmly because the rains just happen to be falling on the far side of their borders. If the Gulf Stream & North Atlantic thermohaline circulation shuts down, can northern Europe accommodate that? If the US is dealing with rebuilding (or even just diking) the lower parts of Miami, Charleston, Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and is simultaneously dealing with extensive crop failures and resultant food shortages, will we be able to step in and help elsewhere in the world? If the heart of the Great Plains turns back into sand dunes do you really want to bet that we will have balancing gains in agricultural productivity elsewhere? All this might well stimulate some interesting engineering, infrastructure improvements, and the like, but we could do those much more easily and affordably without having to deal with the disadvantages of global warming. Do you really want to make the bet that a system of 8 billion people organized into 196 sovereign countries that are not always cooperative and looking out for humanity's overall best interest can safely handle a considerable portion of the world's population deciding whether to die or pick up and move 10 to 500 miles?

  • joel hanes on September 09, 2012 1:50 PM:

    rfb99 blithers:

    humans may benefit due to the enormous new agricultural capability of Siberia and Canada

    Utterly delusional.

    Go to Illinois, or Iowa, or the Russian grain provinces and dig: you find meters, even tens of meters of topsoil, the product of a million years of glaciation and ten thousand years of grass fires; and under that, the great layer cake of alkaline Paleozooic sedimentary rock that keeps the soil mellow and fertile.

    Now go straight north of those places, to Ontario or Siberia, and attempt to dig. You will find, at best, centimeters of topsoil (if there's any topsoil at all) over granite and metamorphics.

    Good luck trying to grow your hundred-bushel corn anywhere on the Canadian Shield, or on the northern Asian craton.

  • zandru on September 09, 2012 3:13 PM:

    "A completely ice free North Pole could be the kind of climate Pearl Harbor-style event that shocks the system into action."

    Or not. Like rfb99, I can think of plenty of convincing ways that this can be spun as a "good thing" - in particular, for business. Jobs, jobs, jobs! ya know.

    So the polar ice cap is gone. Why should Americans, who have never been there, care? Maybe Carnival Cruises will be offering a Polar Express cruise now! No ice means we can drill, baby, drill, up where absolutely nobody lives or cares. Furthermore, with that pesky ice gone, the fabled and long-sought Northwest Passage will have opened up - take that, Panama!

    We are expecting uninformed and misinformed Americans to miss things that they never cared about. Our not inconsiderable job, then, is to help them to understand, in the face of a disinformation campaign that's breathtaking in its scope and financing.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on September 09, 2012 7:02 PM:

    We are expecting uninformed and misinformed Americans to miss things that they never cared about. -zandru

    Just tell our fellow "morans" that Santa Claus and his workshop drowned, Christmas is cancelled, and they'll no longer be getting any cheap crap at the end of December. Pretty, sure they'd miss that.

    Some perhaps many species will diminish or become extinct, but other species will thrive. -rfb99

    Great. Of course if warming occurs much faster or much higher than prehistoric natural variations than "many species" will become 95-99% of species going extinct.

    Here's David Roberts explaining why we're fucked if the conservative models predicting GW are wrong.

  • N.Wells on September 09, 2012 8:47 PM:

    Good point - there'd be more than a little irony in the fundamentalist / anti-science / anti-climatology crowd being the ones to finally win the war against Christmas!

    That was also a good point about large parts of the Canadian shield being scraped down to bedrock. There are some broad regions of glacial deposits in the far north, but they make primarily immature and relatively infertile inceptisols that could use a millennium or three of chemical weathering to weather into clays and reach full fertility.

  • melior on September 09, 2012 9:38 PM:

    That's some very unsettling data there. Better fasten our seatbelts, this could be a rough century.

    But I have to remind you of something from Data Presentation 101: as a rule it's unnecessary and potentially misleading to present a graph like this with vertical scale that doesn't go to zero. (It misguides the natural intuition about relative differences between the two datasets' values.) There are exceptions to the general rule, but this isn't one of those cases.

  • klem on September 10, 2012 7:23 AM:

    It is also misleading to show a graph which goes back to April only. The real graph shows the entire year, and last winter the Arctic ice extent was the highest on record. That's right, the highest. But to show the entire graph would reveal the truth, so they cherry picked from April only. Nice work, entirely predictable too.

    Cherry picking data is standard fare for the alarmists, and alarmist followers don't mind one bit.


  • Lotharsson on September 10, 2012 8:00 AM:

    In fact humans may benefit due to the enormous new agricultural capability of Siberia and Canada.

    Based on our current course it's not clear that a 4C temperature rise is out of the question, at which point some recent research suggests that such a future "...is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond Ďadaptationí, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable."

    Recent research also suggests the carrying capacity of earth could be reduced to a total of about one billion humans.

    These concerns, rather than being "borderline irrational", appear to be rooted in evidence and scientific process. If you want to argue that they are overblown you need to demonstrate that the scientific evidence must lead to that inference. But merely saying it does not make it so.

  • N.Wells on September 10, 2012 9:02 AM:

    Klem, Initial googling suggests that your claim is wrong: the ice hung on a little later than usual this year, so late in the winter/spring its coverage remained greater than usual lately for that time of year, but maximum coverage is well below even the 1980's average: http://thinkprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Sea_Ice_Extent_L.gif


    Sorry, that graph also does not bottom out at zero.

    Also, global warming means that climates shift, and not all changes have to be warmer: some areas can get snowier, others can get cloudier and thus colder, etc.

  • SecularAnimist on September 10, 2012 11:04 AM:

    Ryan Cooper wrote: "A completely ice free North Pole could be the kind of climate Pearl Harbor-style event that shocks the system into action."

    Um, no. A completely ice-free Arctic Ocean is not comparable to "Pearl Harbor". It is more comparable to global thermonuclear war.

    An ice-free Arctic Ocean means that there is no more white, shiny ice to reflect the Sun's energy, which will then be absorbed by the open, dark ocean, which will drastically accelerate the warming of the Arctic, leading to the release of vast amounts of methane from thawing permafrost and underwater clathrates, which will further accelerate the warming beyond any possibility of stopping it through human actions.

    An ice-free Arctic Ocean means that "the system" has already failed to do what has been urgently needed for a generation, and it's too late to stop rapid, extreme, catastrophic warming that will certainly lead to the collapse of human civilization and very likely lead to the complete ecological meltdown of the Earth's biosphere.

  • klem on September 12, 2012 2:29 PM:

    "..it's too late to stop rapid, extreme, catastrophic warming that will certainly lead to the collapse of human civilization and very likely lead to the complete ecological meltdown of the Earth's biosphere."


    OMG SecularAnimist, get a life. I can 't help but wonder, how do people like you get along each day? I donít know what it is, I think climate alarmists are chronically depressed, you look into the future and you see nothing but darkness and death. But you actually enjoy the prospect of that kind of future, its bizarre.

    I'm a climate skeptic, I look into the future and the future is bright, my childrenís future is bright as well. Your children have nothing but misery and darkness to look forward to, and you will do your best to ensure that's the future they get.

    How do you people get along each day hoping and praying that the world will soon come to an apocalyptic end?

    Get help.


  • Mitch on September 12, 2012 2:53 PM:


    We do not hope that catastrophic climate change will occur; we are simply aware that it is, in fact, already occuring and will only get worse.

    You are the stereotypical ostrich, but no matter how deeply you bury your head, you cannot hide from reality. We all hope that our children and grandchildren and descendents a thousand years from now have lives of peace an prosperity. But reality does not give a crap about our hopes. Comforting falsehoods are no comfort at all, in the end.

    The evidence is overwhelming. It is your choice to turn a blind eye to it, but all of the denial in the world means nothing. I really do wish that you were correct. I would absolutely LOVE for anthropogenic climate change to be disproven. But it has not. Quite the opposite; it is proven more and more strongly as time passes.

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