A forlorn polar bear sitting on a small piece of ice in a wide blue sea is a powerful image for many people. It says: "we are changing the Earth's climate, destroying its wildlife and we ought to do something about it". But it just makes plenty of other people angry. Since writing a book about the changing Arctic with that image on its cover I've run into a lot of the angry people. The sad bear is just a symbol of liberals who put animals before people: let nature takes its natural course and if that means the bear goes extinct that is just fine. It is nothing to do with us and certainly not worth spending a lot of money to stop.
Well, I have a message for all these guys. The Arctic is getting angry too. Climate change may seem as if it is a worry just for the people who want to "save the planet" but really it is about saving our current standard of living. And once you get the Arctic angry it will go for a long, slow revenge. No sudden disasters that can be ended quickly if we all rally to action. The Arctic will go for a thousand years of endless pressure, unstoppable and inevitable, that humans are just hopeless at dealing with collectively: you only have to look at the delay and bickering of Copenhagen after more than a decade of climate negotiations.
Greenland is a good place to get a good sense of what the Arctic has in mind. Start with a walk in the eastern suburb of the town of Ilulissat. People don't live there. It is reserved for sled dogs and you can wander, very cautiously, among some very fierce chained-up Greenlandic huskies and friendly sled puppies. The strange thing is that there are empty kennels everywhere. In 2002, 4,700 sled dogs lived here, a little more than the town's human residents. Now the number is less than 3,000. The ice is disappearing and the locals are trading in dogs for boats. Go down to the shore and you'll see open blue water now and sailing along in it are stupendous numbers of gigantic icebergs. That's our first sign of the Arctic's revenge.
The monster bergs are breaking off the Jakobshavn Glacier. Ten huge ice streams drain the enormous mass of Greenland's ice cap and this is the greatest of them all. It is almost two miles wide. In 1992, it was crawling to the sea at a steady 3.5 miles a year. By 2003 it was roaring along at 7.8 miles a year, spewing icebergs. As the glacier moved faster, the ice deeper within the ice cap that fed it began to thin. Greenland holds a staggering amount of ice and it is rushing for the exit.
If all 700,000 cubic miles of it were to melt away, sea level would rise by around twenty-three feet, causing an unimaginable catastrophe. That won't happen quickly but the melt is speeding up. Eventually it will reach a tipping point when the top of the ice has melts to a lower elevation where the air is warm. Then there is no stopping sea level rise for a thousand years or more, especially as the Antarctic joins in. Goodbye Manhattan, London, Holland...
Up on the ice cap and across the tundra rimming the Arctic seas, the air is warming rapidly too. With temperatures rising, odd streams of gas have begun bubbling from tundra lakes. You can find out what it is by just lighting a match: stand well back so you don't lose your hair as it explodes. It is methane, generated as micro-organisms begin to break down the thawing organic material at the lake bottom. It is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and the Arctic is full of it. Out in the shallow Arctic seas, too, bubbling streams of methane are appearing where there were none before.
Away from the lakes, the frozen ground--permafrost--is rotting away as it thaws, pouring out carbon dioxide. There is enough carbon stored in the permafrost to raise global temperatures an average of 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, this carbon will not all be released at once. The Arctic really goes for a long, slow settling of scores. It will thaw over hundreds of years, endlessly pushing up global temperatures.
Wouldn't it be better to halt these changes now, rather than facing the Arctic's revenge? You don't have to worry about polar bears, just what it is going to mean for you and generations to come.