On October 2, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) held a briefing about the stockpile of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in old equipment and building infrastructure, and the enormous potential for these potent greenhouse gases to accelerate climate change. These CFC “banks” store the equivalent of 18 billion tons of carbon dioxide, approximately one-third of which will be emitted over the next decade under business as usual. This briefing explained how CFCs contribute to climate change, opportunities in international treaties and pending federal legislation such as the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454) to incentivize safe collection and destruction, and the pros and cons of alternative gases.
On October 1, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and Clean Air-Cool Planet, in conjunction with the Royal Norwegian Embassy, held a briefing about the climate change impacts seen today in the Arctic. Climate change continues to grow as an issue of global concern, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a top priority for the Obama administration. Major international climate negotiations will take place in Copenhagen in December and a debate on comprehensive climate legislation is anticipated in the U.S. Senate this fall. These policy discussions come against a backdrop of rapid and continuing warming of climate in the Arctic as reflected by the shrinkage of the extent and thickness of Arctic sea ice, and melting of glaciers and permafrost. At this briefing, top scientists from Norway and the United States discussed the latest research in this vulnerable region and its implications.
- Climate change is profoundly changing the Arctic. Temperatures have risen by 1.25°C since industrialization and twice as fast as in the rest of the world.
- Snow and ice have a very high albedo, meaning they reflect most light and heat back into space. When they melt, more sunlight is absorbed by the dark sea water, causing higher temperatures and more melting. This cycle is known as a positive feedback loop.
- Sea ice cover has fallen by 60 percent since the 1970s. Summer ice is vanishing at a rate of 11.7 percent per decade, while winter ice is declining at a rate of 2-2.5 percent per decade. Average ice thickness also has decreased, from 3 meters in 1990 to 1 meter in 2007.
- There was a huge drop in sea ice cover in 2007 that far exceeded the worst case scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report in 2007. This is partly due to an increase in melt ponds, which are darker than the surrounding ice and have a low albedo. Ice that reforms now in the winter is considered “young” ice, which is flatter than old ice and allows melt ponds to expand over a larger surface area.
- The decline in snow and sea ice is causing autumn temperatures to rise in the Arctic, which is now over 5°C warmer than the historical average. This has hastened the spring thaw, increased and changed the type of vegetation growing in the Arctic, altered wildlife migration patterns, increased the number of forest fires, and triggered the first Arctic thunderstorms.
- High autumn temperatures also have impacts far beyond the Arctic. For instance, warm weather in the Arctic is disturbing the jet stream and has reduced precipitation in Canada, Alaska, and Scandinavia, while increasing it in other areas.
- Rapid warming is transforming the type and size of the Arctic’s vegetation cover. Warmer temperatures have allowed shrubs to flourish, displacing lichens which many animals, including caribou, depend on for food. Increased shrub cover all decreases the Arctic’s albedo, which triggers additional warming through a positive feedback loop.
- Warmer temperatures mean a greater melting of permafrost, which releases carbon dioxide and methane that is stored in the soil -- another positive feedback loop. In a business-as-usual scenario, over 600,000 square kilometers of permafrost will melt by 2100.
- Melting ice reduces the salinity of the oceans, shifting the direction and patterns of ocean currents. Further ice melts could disrupt or even shutdown these currents, causing temperatures to drastically fall in Europe which depends on the Gulf Stream for its present climate. Conversely, temperatures in lower-latitude regions would rise significantly.
- The increasing levels of carbon dioxide emissions are being absorbed by the oceans, causing the water to become more acidic. Ocean acidification threatens marine species and food chains all over the world.