On Monday, August the 27th 2012 the headline read “Arctic Ice Melts to record Low: US Researchers.” The New York Times rolled out “Satellites show sea ice in Arctic is at a record low.” These headlines claim this is yet another sign that man made global warming is real and is a threat to our future.
Most people that read these headlines will not understand what is really behind them. Briefly, the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean varies significantly through the year. Due to the tilt of the earth’s axis of 23.5 degrees from the vertical, the Arctic Ocean freezes solid in the winter when sun is below the horizon for months and the temperature plunges to 40 to 60 degrees below zero and colder. In the Arctic summer the sun is above the horizon 24 hours a day. The temperature climbs into the 30s and the ice melts until the fall when the sun gets lower and lower in the sky and eventually disappears into the dark of winter again. Given this large variation in Arctic sunlight and temperature through the year, there has always been a cyclic change in the amount of ice in the Arctic. The claim is that because there has been less ice in the Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer in recent years, this is proof of man made global warming.
The new “record low amount” of sea ice in the Arctic will be trumpeted by many as a sure sign that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is its cause. We teach young people history so they can hopefully place current events in some kind of proper context. In the same light, only by understanding the history of Arctic sea ice comings and goings will we be able to truly grasp the nature of how the Arctic ice varies naturally. Armed with that knowledge, in theory, we can then make wise decisions about what kinds of energy will drive the future. Unfortunately, it seems all written accounts of what the ice is doing in the Arctic lack any historical perspective. It would seem that either the writers don’t know the history or they choose not to include it.
Walt Meier, a scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado said that on one level the new record was “just a number and occasionally records are going to get set.” However he went on to say “But in the context of what’s happened in the last several years and throughout the satellite record, it’s an indication that the Arctic sea ice cover is fundamentally changing.”