‘Heat wave’ at the North Pole waves a red flag




Hope Ness, on the Bruce Peninsula in southern Ontario, Canada, is just a few kilometres south of the 45th Parallel which is halfway between the Equator and the North Pole. It’s not that unsual for temperatures here to still be hovering around the freezing point of 0 degrees Celsius close to the end of December. The moderating effect of the nearby waters of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron play a role in that until they start to freeze over. The really cold weather comes in January and February, unlike the North Pole that normally would be bitter cold, far below freezing by December.

But the temperature at the North Pole on December 22 reached 0 C, the same as it was in Hope Ness and other parts of southern Ontario that same day. From the point of view of the North Pole, and the impact of global warming and climate change, it was appropriate indeed to refer to it as the “melting point,” as many news media outlets did at the time.

That amazing event was recorded by a weather buoy 145 kilometres south of the North Pole.

A similar event happened the previous year, according to reports that got virtual, front-page coverage for a day or two. Despite the two-year successive frequency, the polar “heat wave” was still regarded as a rare event, but one that’s expected to “become commonplace in just a few decades” as the Arctic region continues to be impacted by climate change, said an article on the Scientific American website.

The information originated with the World Weather Attribution team, a world-wide group of climate researchers, including Climate Center, which broke the news re-published by Scientific American.

First in November, and again in late December, warmer air from the south, helped by unusual and stormy wind patterns, poured into the Arctic region on both sides of North America from the south via the Bering Strait to the west, and the North Atlantic to the east. The extreme cold air that normally settles over the pole by the end of the year was pushed aside into Russia’s vast Siberian land mass where temperatures plunged to near -50 C.

The researchers determined it was virtually impossible for such a “heat wave” to happen in the North Pole region at the beginning of the 20th Century when temperatures on average were several degrees colder. But these most recent events stood out because of the “massive role climate change played,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Oxford University. “Climate change really is the game-changer here.”

If human carbon emissions continue at their “current trajectory” temperatures in the Arctic could reach a point where “heat waves like this occur every few years by mid-century,” said the Climate Center article, re-published on the Scientific American website. And that “winter warmth will likely cause a cascade of other effects throughout the region,” ranging from reduced polar bear habitat, to the continued melting of old sea ice, and more intense storms battering exposed coasts.

The article noted Arctic sea ice had already melted to its lowest peak extent ever recorded in March of 2016, and hit its second-lowest extent recorded in September. Then, in November, when the ice cover should have started expanding again, it continued to shrink.

As I read that I thought of the unusually hot, dry summer we experienced last summer in this area. Similar weather conditions extended as far north as the Boreal forest region of northern Alberta where a catastrophic fire destroyed much of Fort McMurray.

Also recently, for days on end, a thick smog covered much of China where coal-fired generating stations still power much of that country’s extraordinary industrial growth, and new wealth has created an automotive boom, contributing to the air pollution.

By all accounts China has realized this can’t go on, that the fossil-fuel, carbon-emission age must end. Renewable energy projects are being built at a remarkable rate. It’s worth noting the manufacturing of photovoltaic panels and other solar-power equipment is big business in the world’s most populous country.

Meanwhile, it appears the United States, with a climate-denier soon to be in the White House, is poised to take a step backward into a renewed fossil-fuel age, as part of the “Make America Great Again” agenda.

That’s a mistake for a country that once led the world in innovative enterprise, that could be and should be among those leading the world into the new, green energy age and economy, not falling behind.

Here in Canada, various climate-change impacts – environmental, social, economic, political and international – especially in the north, could be as significant as anywhere in the world. We may have a hard time indeed trying to balance the economics of the oil industry and the proposed building of new pipelines, with the obvious also-pressing need to move out of the fossil-fuel age.

It seems like a contradiction.

If a choice has to be made, there really is no choice.

2017 may be the year, finally, when we and the rest of the world must realize that before the chance to do something about the climate-change crisis is gone.


A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in December, 2016


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