On Saturday, June 20, the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk located above the Arctic Circle hit a scorching, all-time record high of 100.4 degrees. What’s that have to do with those of us who live thousands of miles away in the U.S.? As residents of the same planet, a lot.
First, the record is a sure sign that the simple science behind climate change, read global warming, is on the mark. It goes like this: We burn fossil fuels (think oil, gasoline, coal), greenhouse gases — most notably carbon dioxide — accumulate in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gases trap radiation from the sun in the atmosphere, and the atmosphere, ocean and land heat up.
Second, the heating of northern climes isn’t just a matter of extreme summer weather. Under the spell of the sun that never sets this time of year up there, the land surface heats up and permafrost begins to melt. As it melts, methane, a more potent but not as long-lasting greenhouse gas is released into the atmosphere, leading to even more warming. The feedback cycle generates more and more melt and more and more methane release.
We’re not done with second point yet. The heating of the northern climes also leads to the normally damp land drying out, which results in forest fires. The fires pose at least two threats: They release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — accelerating global warming — and the soot can settle on snow and ice fields. There, the dark soot absorbs solar radiation which result in faster melting. The water pours into the ocean contributing to sea level rise. Scientists witnessed this dynamic when wildfires in Canada coated Greenland’s ice sheet in soot and melting occurred at a faster rate.
Third, the global warming-driven record high temperatures in Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and other high latitude locations can alter weather patterns. Specifically, they can cause a buildup of high pressure areas that stall the jet stream, which normally keeps weather systems moving from west to east. When they stall, they, too, can heat up. This is contributing to the seemingly never-ending series of monthly high temperature records being set around the globe.
So, what’s all this have to do with you (us)? Record heat above the Arctic Circle is clearly a warning sign that the climate is changing more rapidly than many scientists anticipated. We have pumped more carbon into the atmosphere than has been recorded in millions of years. As a result, there is the very real risk that high temperatures now considered unusual will soon become the norm while extreme high temperatures become, well, more extreme. This cycle could accelerate to the point where, quite frankly, parts of the planet could become inhospitable to human life.
The reality of rapid global warming already poses a threat to millions of people who live in coastal areas. Many of us reside in cities and towns that are already experiencing sea level rise flooding or will likely experience it in the coming years. If the planet warms faster than expected, it’s likely that the rapid melt Greenland experienced due to extremely high temperatures last summer will become the norm. The warming could also cause the Arctic ice sheet, the other major contributor to higher seas, to become further destabilized as floating ice sheets that hold back inland glaciers break off the continent. If enough sea ice vanishes, inland glaciers could become uncorked and rush from land into the sea. The combination of melt in Greenland and a river of Arctic glaciers spilling into the ocean could lead to seas rising much faster than predicted when many locations are already struggling with the foot or so of sea level rise that’s been recorded in the last hundred or so years.
The bottom line for you (us) is global warming is fact. The heating we’re now witnessing and its consequences was anticipated decades ago by the majority of climate scientists. The only real X-factors are how much fossil fuels we’ll burn in the years to come and exactly how fast they’ll warm the atmosphere, ocean and land.
So where does this leave you (us)? Science says the only way to stop the dangerous global warming feedback loop is for humans to burn less fossil fuels. It’s that simple. To achieve this objective, we need to elect leaders who are dedicated to the cause and give our business to companies that help us to trade fossil fuels for environmentally-friendly energy sources.
If we fail to cut back on releasing carbon into the atmosphere, the tiny town in Siberia will prove to be the canary in the coal mine none of the miners listened to.