Whether you believe that the Earth is warming due to natural effects associated with the final stages in the end of our latest ice age, or is due to greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere from human activity, we should think about where we are heading. We should first review what we know.
First, the polar ice caps have been slowly melting. This is true of both the ice in extreme north and south. The ice in the Arctic (north) is perhaps more important for several reasons. First, the slow melting of the ice in the Arctic has resulted in as much as 40% more open water during the summer months over the last several years. This has alarmed many, as it was an event which those who believed most ardently in the production of global warming released through the production of greenhouse gases did not expect. The level of ice melt in the Arctic was not expected to appear as soon as it has now appeared.
This melting of Arctic ice has, in fact, upped the anti. The appearance of such a significant level of open water during the summer months especially allows elevated warming due to the sun’s radiant heating of open water. Prior to that a more or less complete covering of ice allowed most of the radiant solar energy to be reflected back into space.
The trapping of more and more solar energy in the open water of the Arctic each summer, continues to moderate the extremely cold temperature of the Arctic. We continue to see fewer extremely cold temperatures especially in the winter months. The permafrost begins to melt earlier each year and slowly releases its carbon dioxide and methane greenhouse gases. In addition, new extreme weather patterns have been expected and observed even while they cannot be predicted with any certainty.
Many are working to think through whether the new Arctic warming patterns will have an effect on altering the northern Arctic jet streams and how that might be translated into weather patterns in Canada, America, Europe and Russia. Most of the discussion is still speculative, but clearly shows us, when we think about it, that the alteration of the Arctic being observed can have major effects elsewhere. We need to remember that most of the inhabited Earth lies North of the equator.
In view of the fact that the Arctic has only recently changed it’s summer-winter ice covering patterns in significant ways, it will take a few more years before we see the global weather effects clearly. The entire planet should warm, with most of the warming appearing in the north. The most interesting observations will be in the effect of continuing to get heat off the equatorial regions. Usually heat is driven north predominantly by the Atlantic-Indian Ocean Conveyor Belt currents. Presently there is little reason to believe those currents would be disrupted by what is currently happening in the Arctic. But, we’ll come back to this issue in a later post.
In summary, whether we continue to burn fossil fuel or not, we will observe some moderation in the weather in northern regions of the planet over the next 10-30 years. Overall the weather should warm especially in the summer months with potentially violent and not easily predicted storms occurring in both summer and winter months. More predictable patterns may appear in time. We are likely to see all of these effects whether we stop burning fossil fuels or not during that time. To be sure, continuing to burn fossil fuels while the planet is equilibrating with new conditions in the Arctic, can only add considerable complexity to the equilibration.