September 15 2012 was the day a new world climate record was broken but this record was not a reason for celebration.
Readings from The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in the US indicated that the extent of sea ice across the Arctic was at its lowest since satellite record-keeping began. On this date the sea ice reached its summer minimum, 1.32 million square miles, half of what the average size of summer ice was between 1979 and 2000, and almost 20 per cent lower than the previous record minimum of 1.61 million square miles set on September 18th 2007.
Parts of the ocean that were once iced-over even in summer were exposed for the first time in possibly centuries.
A radical shift is plunging the Arctic Ocean towards an ice-free state for the first time in millions of years. Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, a leading ice expert, calls it a "global disaster" that will cause a big boost in global temperatures.
Climate science has long understood that disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic would be a tipping point in the Earth's climate system, accelerating global temperatures and causing extreme weather and other climate changes far beyond the Arctic. Yet nearly every expert has been shocked by just how rapidly this continent of ice has been vanishing and how dramatic the impacts have been already.
A recent United Nations report foresees Arctic summer ice to be non-existent by 2030. Climate researchers warn that the rapidly melting ice, with darker ocean waters that absorb the sun's heat, will contribute to a shifting jet stream, creating new and unpredictable volatile weather patterns.
Though sea ice has come and gone before over the last millennia, no one expected it to melt this far, this fast.
London's Channel 4 News reported that for the last decade the people living in the arctic regions have been noticing glaciers retreating further inland, less sea ice on which seal hunting and fishing used to take place, and the fact it is tangibly warmer.
Earlier this year, measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 per cent of Greenland's ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just four days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 per cent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12.
Arctic sea ice has been a permanent, year-round fixture of our planet since long before humans first appeared in Africa as a new species. Despite being strong enough to survive every change Mother Nature threw at it for millions of years, Arctic sea ice has proven to be shockingly vulnerable to a few decades of humanity's unrestrained fossil fuel pollution.
The trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution that we have released into the atmosphere from burning oil, coal and natural gas has acted like a blow torch on Arctic ice. About five kilograms of Arctic sea ice has disappeared for every half kilogram of CO2 we have released. This highlights the incredible heating power of CO2 which pumps 100,000 times more energy into our climate than was given off when the oil, coal or natural gas was burned.
What makes this event significant is the role Arctic sea ice plays as a reflector of solar energy. Ice is white and therefore reflects a large part of incoming sunlight back out to space. But where there is no ice, dark ocean water absorbs most of the sunlight and thus heats up.
The less ice there is, the more the water heats up, melting more ice. This feedback has all kinds of consequences for human populations because what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic. The rapid disappearance of sea ice cover can have consequences that are felt all over because of the effects it has on atmospheric patterns by altering the jet stream, that wave of air that brings high or low pressure, hot or cold air.
The long-term decline of Arctic sea ice has been incredibly fast and at this point a sudden reversal of events doesn't seem likely. The question no longer seems to be "will we see an ice-free Arctic?" but "how soon will we see it?"
The fact that 2012 has been a scorcher all around — July was the hottest month on record — only makes the connection between carbon pollution and the greenhouse effect all the more apparent.
Arctic sea ice plays a critical role in regulating the planet's climate. Whether there still is time to save the Arctic sea ice is difficult to tell, but we can't wait any longer to cut carbon pollution.
p Krishneil Narayan is the director of Project Survival Pacific — Fiji's Youth Climate Change Movement. For further information and clarification email firstname.lastname@example.org.