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Down to Earth: On Thin Ice

Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch reports on the record-breaking ice melt that's occurring in the Arctic.

Length: 9 min 18 sec

Recorded: May 2012

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In this episode, Earthjustice staffer Jessica Knoblauch reports on the record-breaking ice melt that's occurring in the Arctic. As Arctic temperatures increase, research suggests that warmer waters could shift weather patterns elsewhere, bringing more extreme weather to the United States.

The Palmyra Atoll is a tropical coral island in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. It's warm, tiny and far from the vast, frigid Arctic. And yet these distant, disparate places are as alike in one sense as any two places on Earth. Each is an early victim of humankind's addiction to fossil fuels and our constantly affirmed determination to stay addicted.

Last year, the Arctic lost the second highest amount of ice since monitoring first began in 1979. When scientists first began measuring Arctic sea ice, they found that it was about two and a half million square miles—roughly the same size as the lower 48 states. Now, with global warming, that area has been reduced by about 65 percent. In other words, the amount of ice lost is equal to an area that includes all of the states both east of the Mississippi as well as those bordering the Mississippi.

As the Arctic ice melts at a near-record pace, the ocean warms and expands. Though the melting of the sea ice by itself doesn't change sea levels, warmer ocean waters also melt continental ice, which does cause sea level rise. And, as more open water becomes free of sea ice, more solar radiation is captured rather than reflected back into the atmosphere. This, in turn, results in more ice melting, creating what's known as a feedback loop.

As a result, low-lying communities like the Palmyra Atoll are quietly disappearing under rising ocean waters. These islands and their inhabitants are literally at the edge of global climate disaster.

"What's going on in the Arctic is really important for places like Palmyra."

That's Robert Dunbar, a professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University's Center for Ocean Solutions.

"The less summer sea ice there is, the more the sun can warm the ocean. Ocean heat then contributes to more rapid melting of continental ice."

Palmyra Atoll and other low-lying communities are quietly disappearing under rising ocean waters.
(Richard Shallenberger / USFWS)

Last September, Dr. Dunbar, along with other leading scientists, spoke with Earthjustice during a press telebriefing on the near record-breaking sea ice melt in the Arctic.

Dr. Walter Meier, a research scientist from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado in Boulder, was also on the Arctic press call. In 2011, he took part in the record-breaking sea ice measurements.

"The last five years, 2007 through 2011, have been the five lowest minimums that we've seen in the satellite record and likely for many years before that. This is quite unprecedented in quite a while. And, this is really continuing a trend of the long-term decline."

In addition to low-lying areas, the loss of sea ice also has a local impact on indigenous communities whose culture and livelihood have developed side-by-side with their Arctic environment.

Earthjustice attorney Erika Rosenthal has been working with Arctic communities that are negatively impacted by climate change-induced phenomena. Sea level rise and increased forest fires are just some of the issues that come up.

"The Arctic is changing enormously quickly. They are seeing species of insects in the Arctic that they had never seen before. A dragonfly all of a sudden appears way, way, way north in the Arctic. They are experiencing changes in the migratory patterns of the various species that they rely on for subsistence, from caribou to seals and other animals. And so, they're seeing this all in the span of a generation and they are both enormously concerned about preserving and continuing their cultures and having the youth in the next generation be able to live on the land in the same way that they have for millennia."

The loss of Arctic sea ice is also expected to harm much of the region's wildlife. Though most people think of the Arctic as a frozen wasteland, in reality it's a thriving, diverse landscape filled with caribou, whales, polar bears, seals and waterfowl.

As glaciers retreat and sea ice melts, animals that depend on ice face grave danger.

"Polar bears north of Alaska now have much further to go between Alaska and where the ice edge is."

That's Dr. James Overland, a research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He has written more than 100 peer-reviewed articles on climate and its effects on ecosystems.

Caribou cross the Dalton Highway during their annual migration. North Slope, Alaskan Arctic.
(Florian Schulz /

"And walrus that usually spend all of their time drifting around on ice flows, this year as with several previous years they've had to haul out on shore, which brings a lot of extra stress on their population."

The Arctic's wildlife is also under threat from a renewed push for oil and gas exploration in the area. As polar ice melts, energy companies are eyeballing resource-rich, but previously inaccessible areas like Canada's Northwest Passage and Russia's Northern Sea.

The rest of the world, however, will not remain unscathed. Though more research is needed, current data suggests that less ice and warmer temperatures could shift weather patterns, bringing more frequent and intense droughts and storms to the U.S.

Right now, the Arctic is warming anywhere from two to three times as fast as the rest of the world, so the impacts that the area is experiencing now serve as harbingers of the climate change impacts that the rest of the world will face in the coming decades.

Meanwhile the U.S. continues to drag its heels on enacting climate legislation.

Says Earthjustice's Rosenthal: "That kind of world is one that is very difficult to imagine how many people in many parts of the planet will be able to survive. So we are crafting by our own inaction a future for our children and grandchildren that will be shockingly different than the world we live in today and a very, very, very hard one to live in."

Despite the inaction of the U.S. and others, not all hope is lost. Earthjustice is working internationally to push governments into taking serious action on forestalling the calamitous impacts of climate change. It's also working specifically on climate in the Arctic and the ways in which the accelerated warming and melting will impact the extraordinary cultures, landscapes and wildlife of the region.

"Civil society's role or NGOs' [non-governmental organizations] role generally is to hold the governments' feet to the fire, to set a marker—the old expression: 'Speak truth to power.' There are very clear steps that need to be taken and they are difficult ones. Nonetheless, there are big economic changes that need to happen. Many governments and negotiators, they know what the right thing is, but they are being buffeted by many different economic interests. Industry has, of course, huge representation at international forums. And so it's NGOs' jobs to represent those people around the world and certainly those creatures around the world that don't have a voice in these forums and can't speak for themselves."

Close Video

Stop Soot Now

Black carbon casts a deadly shadow worldwide, from the sprawl of Los Angeles, to the slums of Mumbai, to the Arctic ice that sustains polar bears and other wildlife.

But quick action to cut black carbon—microscopic airborne particles commonly known as soot—can slow Arctic melting, fight global warming and save lives.

Along with deep cuts in CO2, curbing black carbon is crucial for slowing Arctic and global warming, and for averting catastrophic tipping points such as the melting of sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet.

Earthjustice is also working to reduce so-called short-lived pollutants like black carbon. These pollutants account for more than one-third of global warming and are key to reducing warming in the near term because they stay in the atmosphere for only a few weeks or a few years. Carbon dioxide, by comparison, remains in the atmosphere for centuries. According to the United Nations Environment Program, Arctic ice melt can be significantly slowed in the next few decades by curbing these types of air pollutants.

Says Rosenthal: "It is within the government's power to reduce emissions of black carbon, and they are not. There are no national boundaries in terms of international environmental issues. Chemicals applied in cotton fields here in the United States make their way all the way up to polar bears in the Arctic. We are seeing now with some of the short-lived climate forcers, particularly black carbon, that black carbon emitted from a diesel truck here in New England, for example, can be carried by wind all the way up to the Arctic and deposited on Arctic ice and snow, where it accelerates warming and melting. And then there is a chain reaction, that warming and melting in the Arctic leads to sea level rise around the world. So we are all very connected."

In March, the EPA released a long-awaited report that compiles all of the available scientific information on the health and climate impacts of black carbon. The study also evaluates the effectiveness of available black carbon reduction technologies for protecting public health and the environment. To learn more about black carbon and to encourage the U.S. to take action now to reduce black carbon emissions, visit

What Ice Melt Means, A Telepress Conference: In 2011, Earthjustice National Press Secretary Kari Birdseye hosted a telepress conference with three leading research scientists on climate change, who spoke about the massive ice melt record, climate change, weather patterns and rising sea levels. Listen as they share their findings, and answer questions from the media.

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