Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Global COOLING ahead.

Ice and reflections on Lower Saint Regis Lake, by Kary Johnson (http://www.wildsowstudio.com/). 

One of the many things I like about this beautiful photo is that it's not necessarily obvious whether it represents winter freeze-up or spring ice-out.  It reminds me of the changes that are going on in the Arctic today, with the retreat of summer sea ice progressing farther and farther, year after year.  But it also reminds me of what lies farther ahead of us in the deep future, when "climate whiplash" eventually flips the world into global cooling recovery mode.

The thinning and drawing back of summer ice is already revolutionizing the ecology of the Arctic Ocean (http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews).  Harbor seals, orcas, and other marine species of the Atlantic and Pacific are moving north into the shrinking territories of ice-loving ringed seals, narwhals, and such,.  Eventually the open summer waters of the Arctic Ocean will support vast plankton-based marine communities powered by the Arctic midnight sunlight, which is now largely blocked out by the ice ceiling, and commercial fishing industries are already gearing up to exploit them. 

Today, it seems incredible that such huge changes could occur as a result of our carbon-based lifestyles; no ice at the North Pole!  And it makes many of us feel uneasy, too, as if blue water at zero degrees North is somehow unnatural or inherently awful.

Well, of course it certainly can be mostly bad if you're on the losing end of things in a warming world. 

But consider this; how might a cooling world look, instead?  In the Big Picture, most of the recovery from our modern-day carbon emissions pulse will involve global cooling back towards more moderate temperatures over tens of thousands of years. 

How will people and species of the deep future respond to the changes that will come AFTER our enormous carbon dioxide pulse begins to fade, thereby allowing northern climates to begin their long, slow cool-off?  Thousands of years from now, what by then will have become ancient temperate-climate cultures and ecosystems will face an entirely new threat as the surface of the polar ocean slowly beings to re-freeze.

What will it feel like to watch ice creep over the waves, gradually choking off shipping lanes and traditional fishing grounds? Imagine living in a centuries-old settlement on an Arctic coast, watching the sea begin to solidify around your home.  Will the rebirth of a polar ice cap seem like a return to the way things "should" be, or like a horrible end of days for you and the world as you know it?

In the Big Picture, perhaps it's not so much warming or cooling as change itself that we fear, especially when it comes at us on a global scale as the collective, unintended consequences of things we do in our daily lives. There's a whole lot more to the story of our carbon legacy than global warming alone!

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