- Published: 26 December 2016 26 December 2016
Peter Wadhams has achieved many accolades and held positions such as Director of the Scott Polar Institute in Cambridge Uk, among a great many others. He has been on more than 50 research trips to the polar regions and, of special interest to those studying the demise of the Arctic ice cap, he has been under the ice on 6 submarine expeditions.
It was during these submarine trips that Professor Wadhams started noticing what could not be seen from satellites measuring the sea ice area; namely that the volume of the ice was being greatly melted from below. This discovery showed that the dynamics of change in the Arctic were more complex and happening far faster than had previously been conceived.
Research lecture and Explorer’s Journey
Wadhams begins by taking us through the essential steps of how ice is formed, the difference between single year and multi-year sea ice, and how that fits into the context of deep time history of life on Earth. We get exposure to the language of polar researchers as words like frazil ice or polynyas as mechanisms and processes are clearly defined like pieces of a jigsaw that eventually come together to construct a larger more complex picture.
What is described and the illustrations that accompany the text have an otherness that we might feel when someone is describing the surface of another planet. But that really is the rub. It really is our planet that Wadhams is scrutinising; an essential, delicate, sensitive and rapidly changing part of the Earth system.
Meeting with Professor Wadhams at COP22
I caught up with Wadhams at the UNFCCC COP22 climate change summit in Morocco in November of 2016 and asked him to summarise ‘A Farewell To ice’. After jokingly apologising to Ernest Hemingway for the appropriation of his title he said:
“The top end of the world was always white… that was the way it was! Until now, in the summer at least, it is now blue. We have separated North America from Asia in a way that it wasn’t separated before.
To compare the way I perceived - because I go there every year - how the ice has changed as I’ve watched and what that means physically for the planet in terms of the warming rate, changes in sea-level, changes in areas of snow, all things that spin off from the loss of ice in the Arctic. It’s a farewell to ice personally and for the planet.”
Differences with the establishment & “bingo” predictions
Wadhams has in more recent times found himself at odds with a scientific establishment that he says has an over reliance on computer climate models that aim to simulate specific Earth systems in order to determine what the future holds.
His main contention is that the models are not adequate and miss out many processes that are impacting the sea ice especially and causing the Arctic to melt out at a much faster rate than modellers have calculated.
One practise that has hindered his message in recent years is the willingness to answer journalists questions about “what year will we see an ice free Arctic?”. I personally think this is a question that does not need answering. The data clearly shows what is happening in the Arctic and at the time of writing this review (Christmas 2016) the Arctic is is experiencing a extraordinary, unprecedented in human terms, heat wave at the North Pole.
What we see is an unfolding trend that is as Professor Wadhams has predicted for a long time. Whether it occurs fully this year of in five years is not really important. What we do about it is!
Interconnectedness: outcomes of an ice free world
As climate scientists study Earth systems, it is becoming increasingly clear that the planet is very much interconnected. The very idea of a system that operates in a responsive manner, should not be too difficult to understand. Humans are adding around 40 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere each year and this is tipping us into a hotter epoch faster than every seen before.
With each fraction of degree we add to our atmosphere we are locking in changes that will radically change civilisation. The loss of the Arctic has many interactions that are affecting Greenland, the jet stream that keeps Britain within a band of warmer climatic conditions considering our latitude, as well as changing weather patterns around the world.
As the Arctic turns from a white reflective surface to a dark heat absorbing one, the amount of increased warming is calculated to be the equivalent to the total warming we have experienced from our own greenhouse gas emissions in the last 25 years. The implications will impact every aspect of human life on Earth from the social, political, ethical and existential, as we strive to survive on our destabilised planet.