Saturday, August 22, 2015

Arctic Oil Drilling and Climate Change: Connecting the Dots

Note: This program first aired August 22, 2015.
If you haven’t noticed lately, its been kind of hot here in Maine. Hot like it hasn’t been all summer, or even in a year or two. While the rest of the world has been heating up, the Northeast has generally been running a bit cooler than most everyone else. We knew that for sure last winter, but the same has held true for the past couple of summers as well. Exactly why we’ve been cooler while everyone else has gotten hotter, as predicted by climate models, is not entirely understood. The wandering of the polar vortex that has graced our past two winters results from latitudinal changes in atmospheric pressure gradients, which change the jet stream, allowing it to run more north and south than the typical east and west. The summer coolness may just be coincidence, or may not. Rapid melting of Arctic sea ice and the Greenland Ice sheet have put large quantities of cold fresh water into the north Atlantic and changed aspects of the circulation of the Gulf Stream. Less warm water is going north, and less cold water is coming south. The resulting cold area in the north Atlantic may be having something to do with our coolness relative to the rest of the world. Or not. It just isn’t clear.
While we’ve been living in our cooler than average bubble here in Maine (present heat wave notwithstanding), temperatures on the rest of Earth have been rising. In fact the first half of this year has been the warmest on record, wiping out the “warmest year on record” status held by last year. And we know why this is, we’ve talked about it ad nauseam here on the show before. Increased levels of atmospheric green house gasses are trapping more and more heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. The primary green house gas is of course, carbon dioxide—one of the key nutrients necessary for photosynthesis and one of the products of energy liberating chemical reactions, like deconstructing glucose for metabolic energy or burning oil, coal or gas to yield mechanical energy. Anything we do that diminishes photosynthesis or increases energy liberation increases carbon dioxide production.
As has been clear from the past two winters here in the northeast, the impacts of climate change are not distributed uniformly across the surface of the Earth. We were buried under feet of snow, and when it wasn’t snowing it was well below zero, while my uncle in Alaska dealt with rain and temps in the 50’s all winter. One of the regions being hardest hit is the Arctic, a region of the world that has been an ice covered ocean for at least 700,000 years, if not more. Each summer the sea ice melts a bit, and each winter more ice forms. Lately though, due to all this carbon dioxide mediated warming, more and more ice has been melting in the summers, and less is refreezing in the winter. The ice is getting thinner, and the overall coverage is diminishing. This is problematic for many of the organisms that make the Arctic their home, as well as for the havoc that it wrecks on global weather patterns (Snowmageddon anyone?). There are some people out there though, who think this lack of Arctic ice is pretty good news. The petroleum company Royal Dutch Shell has been working for many years to secure all of the equipment and permissions required to begin exploratory well drilling in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska. Because this is US territorial water, it required the permission of the federal government, which it just received. 
One of the things we talk about when looking at climate change is the feedback loop. Feedback is when one thing impacts another, which can then impact the original event which can then impact the secondary event, and on and on. What we have set up here in the Arctic now is a feedback loop. We burn fossil fuels and pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which warms it, which melts the Arctic sea ice, which opens access to the Arctic Ocean for offshore drilling, which gets us more fossil fuel. Perfect. I feel like that character in the movie Zoolander, who, at his wits end screams out “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” Aren’t we worried about the impacts of climate change?  Then why are we green lighting a scheme to get even more climate change causing oil? Not to mention the potentially horrific impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic. Someone didn’t connect the dots here. As we stew in our 100% humidity here in Maine, for a few weeks we join the rest of the world in feeling the heat. I suspect that when President Obama visits the Arctic later this month, he will be feeling the heat as well.
Its official—the first half of this year is the warmest on record (world wide)
Images of temperature anomalies (variations from average) from NOAA:
Wow, words can hardly express my delight in finding this parody site: #failbetter
Arctic sea ice current conditions:
Why did Shell get a permit? Democracy Now interview: