Have we broken the planet?


A graph showing this year’s figures for area of global sea ice, in comparison with the same data for the past c. 40 years, was widely shared on Twitter yesterday, resulting in a lot of discussion and consternation.  I’m not on Twitter (yet…) and picked this up from Terry McGlynn’s Facebook feed.  The graph shows an anomalously low extent of sea ice compared with what we would expect at this time of the year, in fact a drop of about 25%.

As you can see, something looks to be seriously wrong.  For more discussion about the graph, see this piece over at The Verge.

I’ve not discussed climate change much on this blog, it’s not my area of specialism and there are plenty of other good bloggers out there who are far more knowledgeable than I.  But graphs like this are hugely worrying because they not only suggest that aspects of our climate may be at a tipping point where they change from one state/predictable pattern to another.  That’s a concern on a global level, because it’s strong evidence for global warming.  However the reduction in sea ice also has huge implications for the biodiversity that depends upon the ice.

If I hear any more news on this I’ll post it, but in the meantime it’s worth pondering whether perhaps the UK’s signing up for the Paris Climate Agreement this week is a bit too late.  As my colleague Duncan McCollin put it: “we’ve broken the planet”.  I hope he’s wrong.

6 thoughts on “Have we broken the planet?

  1. Jim Bouldin

    Hi Jeff,

    Lots to be said on this.

    An important note is that, although NSIDC data is the basis thereof, the NSIDC did not itself produce it. It was produced instead by (I believe) “Neven”, a long time blogger (and a good one, AFAIK) on Arctic ice conditions , or by someone at his discussion site.

    If the underlying data are reliable–and the NSIDC has said they are–then the recent months are indeed a big-time anomaly, within the satellite record period (1979 on), for sure. But what that fact implies regarding physical significance (i.e. causation and impacts) is another, much tougher, matter.

    There are, always, a number of people on Twitter who are ready to broadcast this type of finding as evidence of a “climate emergency” state, people with large followings, such as Eric Holthaus at Slate Magazine, who did just that. I don’t think such terms are helpful in a science discussion, at all, and indeed, they are not aimed at climate scientists, nor from them. Nor can I wrap my head around what meaning the phrase “the planet is broken” could possibly have. That’s not how I think or talk, and not how most scientists do so, in my experience.

    This is not to say that this finding is not important–it might very well be so. But I do know enough about climate and ecosystems to know that the kinds of observed changes that might get me truly worried are, not necessarily in this order: (1) definitive changes in the global carbon cycle, particularly (but not only) a lessening of the negative feedback mechanisms of oceanic and terrestrial CO2 uptake, and (2) definitive data linking regional scale drought/drying to regional T changes to global T changes. These attributions are not as easy as some seem to think they are, and I think it’s fair to say that, of that portion of the flak that climate science has taken which is legitimate, most of it stems from being cavalier regarding the stringency of confident attribution. Just my opinion there, but based on watching things for several years now.

    1. jeffollerton Post author

      Hi Jim,

      According to the signature on the graph it was produced by “Wipneus” and is consistent with others produced by him/her on that forum, as far as I can see. Is that not correct?

      Anyway, regardless of who produced it, it is certainly a significant anomaly, as you say. Regarding causation, it seems improbable that it’s not a result of anthropogenic climate change – it would be an enormous coincidence if that were the case. However the effects of a 25% reduction in sea ice are potentially large given its role in polar ecology and climate, and could be a warning sign of worse effects to come in the future, at the poles and elsewhere. Or it may not, we simply don’t know. As you rightly say, this is not easy science. But nonetheless such findings need to be drawn attention to, so “Have we broken the planet?” [note the question mark] is purely a rhetorical device to get people paying attention and interested.

  2. Jim Bouldin

    Right, but I believe Wipneus is Neven, though I could well be wrong on that.

    I agree with drawing attention to it, for sure. What I object to is people like Holthaus proclaiming it to be certain evidence of a “climate emergency”–people who for the most part are non-scientists and will take what he says at face value (and he says lots of things like that, all the time). I also object to the concept that the planet is somehow “break-able”, which implies to the unwary an irreversible transition into a non-functional state. I do not like that language at all, even though yes, that’s a possibility.

    As scientists, we have to step through the series of possible explanations, e.g. are there sensor or analytical/interp. errors involved, what role might the recent El Nino be playing, what role might other less well-understood ocean oscillations be playing and etc.

    A side note is that it is also going to be interesting to see how Wadhams is treated by other scientists now. He’s been predicting exactly this kind of rapid declined for a while now, and has been roundly criticized by other scientists for over-simplification.


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