A year ago, summer heat caused more melting of Arctic sea ice by far than any other year on record. Most Arctic scientists have predicted another record melt for this summer, which they agree is one of the clearest signals that global warming is real, in the here and now.
Now, new science tells us that the melting doesn't stop with floating sea ice. Permafrost as far as 900 miles inland melts at more than three-times the usual rate when the sea ice melts rapidly, as it did last summer, according to scientists with the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Snow and Ice Data Center. It will be published in Geophysical Research Letters.
While melting sea ice has a limited effect on humans beyond increased access to shipping lanes and energy supplies (talk to a polar bear to hear a sob story) the melting of permafrost has a direct effect on wildlife and humans in the region and beyond. Oil and gas drilling can only occur if trucks can travel frozen roads, and Arctic settlements could see their foundations crumble as rock-hard ice turns to mush. But the implications for the rest of us are what really have some scientists worried.
Melting permafrost frozen soil would release massive amounts of carbon. Arctic soils hold 30% of the carbon currently stored in the world's soils. The result of melting: carbon dioxide and methane would enter the atmosphere at a rate to rival thousands of factories and power plants running at full steam. Global warming would increase, causing additional melting, which would result in additional emissions, additional warming, additional melting .... You get the point.
Scientists are increasingly confident that global warming caused by human pollution is behind the startling melting seen in the Arctic. There is increasing evidence that the melting will spiral out of control.
This week, the top scientific academies from 13 nations, including the U.S. and other G8 nations, urged the world's leaders to cut carbon emissions in half by 2050 in order to stave off the worst consequences of global warming.
President Bush uttered the words "long-term binding goal" in relation to the G8's discussion of global warming, but the Bush Administration has consistently opposed binding international agreements aimed at limiting greenhouse gas pollution. He has stood in the way of United Nations negotiations, and instead argued for voluntary limits agreed to by the world's biggest polluters.
The Senate, meanwhile, failed to pass a bipartisan bill last week that would have set up a cap-and-trade regulation to limit greenhouse gas pollution. This week, Senate Democrats also failed to win support from Republicans for a bill that would force oil companies to invest record profits in clean, renewable energy technology research and development. As a result, highly polluting energy sources will continue to receive government subsidies despite widespread and growing awareness that burning fossil fuels to power the economy is outdated and in need of a massive upgrade.
That leaves all eyes on the next president, whether he be Barack Obama or John McCain. Both have supported a cap-and-trade regulation, with Obama's plan the more aggressive. Obama has also proposed a sweeping energy program that promises new jobs transforming the way our economy uses energy.
The scientists are speaking clearly: There's no time to waste.
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