As far back as the 19th century, earth scientists began cautioning on the dangers of warming the Arctic and accelerating climate change. As the Arctic's permafrost heats up, releasing greenhouse gases, that warming is now happening. The permafrost has carbon from biological sources accumulated over the last 40,000 years and as it thaws, soil microbes release carbon dioxide and methane.
The last decade's heating alone has paved the way for a summer ice-free Arctic ocean. The lack of ice reflectivity results in higher heat absorption further warming the permafrost. As a result, the unfrozen permafrost no longer keeps carbon dioxide and methane in place, and is drying out too.
Just north of the Arctic Circle, a record heatwave hit Siberia this year – normally one of the coldest places on Earth – with temperatures over 100 F, helping to melt and dry the permafrost.
These high temperatures can cause devastating effects: rising sea-levels, mosquito swarms with the potential of spreading disease, forest fires that clear a Kentucky-sized area, and over $100 billion worth of infrastructure costs to rebuild what is lost.
What’s more, the release of greenhouse gases could create a feedback loop for increasingly discharging substantial amounts of greenhouse gases. Feedback loops are processes that can either amplify or diminish the effects of climate forcings such as social irradiance, airborne particles like dust and smoke, and greenhouse gas emissions. An exponential feedback loop releases gases at an extremely high rate, causing more climate instability and resulting in further destruction. The high release rate may be more likely as thousands of years of frozen permafrost accumulations can be released. Major oil companies, for example, have known about these possibilities and done little, if anything.
The warming of the Arctic may not be the only feedback loop accelerating climate change. As the world warms, the melting of Greenland ice could disrupt the Gulf Stream, causing more severe storms, loss of agriculture, and higher food insecurity.
At the moment, it looks like humanity is trying to find even more accelerants. Our economy does not include the full cost of a product in the price, and business people are not responsible for anything but cashing in their profits. Everyone else is paying for the total cost: climate change.
We see ourselves with significant challenges when combining climate issues, the pandemic, and our dysfunctional economy and politics. We have leadership focused on slow changes or moving backward, while essential workers with low wages have no health care or affordable housing, let alone a living wage. A world trade system globally optimized for profits makes us vulnerable to disruption by eliminating all backup supplies. A news and education system that leaves Americans vulnerable to being misled threatens our democracy. Our civilization is based on science, but almost half the U.S. population cannot dissociate facts from fiction.
Humanity is at a reckoning. The need for a global mobilization to fight climate change and our societal dysfunction is clear.