When you read about global warming, one of the issues raised most often is that of the ice caps melting. This is a very dramatic example of the effects of global warming that really rams home just what a big impact our CO2 emissions have, but most people still think of it as an on-going process that doesn’t pose any immediate threat. After all, the ice caps are pretty huge right? How much damage can the sun possibly do?
Well actually if you look at the figures, the answer is a lot. The ice caps are not just melting a bit, they are actually disappearing and at an ever increasing rate. In 1980 the ice caps made up an impressive 2% of the planet’s surface, but today they make up roughly 1%. In twenty years then the size of the ice caps has halved and as they are disappearing more quickly all the time there’s a very real chance that they could have completely disappeared in the next 20. The Met Office suggest that there may be an ice-free arctic as soon as 2030.
With this shocking realisation then it seems only practical to start preparing for the eventual disappearance of the ice caps… What will happen to the planet if we can’t save them? Are we all doomed? Read on and we’ll take a look…
The Roles of the Ice Caps
Firstly it’s important to recognize that the ice caps aren’t just unwanted lumps of ice – they actually serve a very important purpose which is to reflect sunlight off of the surface and back out into space – over 80% of sunlight in fact. When the ice caps are no longer around then, the atmosphere and the planet itself will begin to absorb much greater quantities of light and heat resulting in the further acceleration of Earth’s temperature.
What this will also mean for us is stranger and stranger weather conditions. Wind of course is caused by the heating of the planet’s surface which creates pressure pockets that air rushes into. With the surface much hotter we can expect much stronger winds resulting in more natural disasters.
Meanwhile this would also result in the release of methane currently trapped under the Arctic permafrost. This would further thicken our environment and compound the greenhouse effect.
Of course that ice isn’t just going to disappear – it has to go somewhere and that means that the melting of the ice caps would also result in a lot of cold water. That cold water could already be affecting weather in the UK as it enters the gulf-stream thus resulting in colder and wetter summers.
More serious than wet weather in the UK (nothing new there!) though would be the rising sea levels which could increase by around 175-225 feet. This would result in a lot of loss of land as many costal areas would disappear – a problem seeing as 60% of the world’s population lives around the coastal plains. Of course they could move inland, but resources would be scarcer and overpopulation would be more of an issue. This could also lead to more natural disasters – all of which would place a huge strain on many economies – there are socio-economic factors to consider here too.
At the same time this process would also decrease the salinity of the water, which would in turn cause the extinction of many marine creatures, drastically altering the marine ecosystems and further dwindling supplies for much of humanity. This should also be considered alongside the waterlogging of huge amounts of farmland around coastal areas which would further affect our food supply.
Of course though all of this is speculation, and there are many uncertain elements that we just can’t predict that would come into play here. For instance it is possible that the disappearance of the ice caps could alter cloud cover across the arctic and thus mitigate some of the effects of the melting. There may be many other factors that we are simply unaware of at this juncture and unable to take into account, but what is certain is that it’s much better that this remain a topic for speculation and not one that we find out about first hand…