The Press Newspaper
Dear EarthTalk: I heard that the Arctic summer sea ice is at its lowest level since we began recording it. What are the implications of all this melting? -- Jo Shoemaker, Bowie, MD
It is true that on September 16, 2012 the world reached a new low: The National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) reported that the extent of sea ice across the Arctic was at its lowest since satellite record-keeping began in 1979. On that date the sea ice reached its summer minimum, 1.32 million square miles, half of what the average size of summer ice was between 1979 and 2000, and almost 20 percent lower than the previous record minimum of 1.61 million square miles set on Sept. 18, 2007. NSIDC added that, despite especially warm conditions in 2007 being much more favorable for sea ice loss than this year, the thinning of sea ice due to climate change has made the ice more vulnerable to breakup and melting.
Meanwhile, researchers with the European Space Agency’s CryoSat-2 probe reported in August that beyond the loss of sea-ice extent, the thickness and volume of the ice has also been declining significantly faster than expected. They found just 1,679 cubic miles this past summer as compared to 3,118 cubic miles in the summer of 2004. They anticipate that the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer for a day or more by the end of the decade.
The implications of such melting are potentially immense. For starters, wildlife like polar bears, seals and walruses depend on sea ice for their survival; their habitat is literally being pulled out from under them. Polar bears were added to the federal Endangered Species List in 2008 for this very reason in what environmentalists herald as a great victory in that the federal government officially recognized the existence of global warming and would therefore be able to take more decisive action to rein in carbon pollution—of course, that part of the dream has yet to be realized.
Perhaps even more alarming is the fact that melting sea ice and accelerating Arctic warming spur changes in the jet stream that increase the frequency of weather extremes like droughts, floods, heat waves and cold spells in the mid-latitude regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The fact that 2012 has been a scorcher all around—July was the hottest month on record, with two-thirds of the U.S. in drought, wildfires running rampant and half the counties in the country designated as federal disaster areas—only makes the connection between carbon pollution and the greenhouse effect all the more apparent.
Environmentalists argue that we already have the technology and the legal tools to achieve rapid greenhouse pollution reductions “Full use of all of the Clean Air Act’s successful pollution-reduction programs is our best route to quick reductions in greenhouse gas emissions,” says Shaye Wolf, climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “The Obama administration, however, has been too slow and timid in using this bedrock law to cut pollution.”
“The polar meltdown shows we’re teetering on the brink of climate-change catastrophe,” adds Wolf. “Arctic sea ice plays a critical role in regulating the planet’s climate. We can’t wait any longer to cut carbon pollution.”
The idea of turning a large chunk of forest in central Maine into a national park dates back at least 150 years when Henry David Thoreau himself called for making the region “a national preserve” in essays about his travels through the area via foot and canoe in the 1850s. To this day most of the areas in central Maine that Thoreau visited are still primarily undeveloped save for intermittent timber extraction.
But recent changes in land ownership there are worrying ecologists. The non-profit RESTORE: The North Woods has been carrying the torch for creating a Maine Woods National Park and Preserve for 20 years and reports that, between 1994 and 2005, the share of forest land in Maine’s 9.3 million acre Unorganized Territory owned by timber companies dropped from 59.2 to 15.5 percent while that owned by investors grew from 3.2 to 32.6 percent. RESTORE is concerned that this dramatic change positions the region for a real estate gold rush. A huge development already planned for the shores of Moosehead Lake in the region is just one example of the kinds of changes afoot that could decimate the region’s wilderness qualities.
RESTORE’s proposal, first aired in 1994, calls for setting aside 3.2-million acres surrounding Baxter State Park (home of Maine’s tallest peak, Mt. Katahdin, and the northern tip of the Appalachian Trail) as a national park. Bigger than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined, the proposed park would safeguard thousands of miles of rivers and streams while providing unfragmented habitat for wildlife.
According to RESTORE, there are no significant chunks of undeveloped wilderness anywhere in the Northeastern United States and that such a large park “is needed to protect wildlife habitat on a landscape scale to allow for adaptation in the face of unprecedented climate change.” Also, the proposed park would ensure permanent access for outdoor recreation and support a diversified and sustainable economy. Although RESTORE’s campaign has the backing of a majority of Maine residents, it has failed to gain enough traction to make it before Congress. Some blame local opposition, allied as the Maine Woods Coalition, for convincing the state’s Congressional delegation not to push for the proposal.
A new proposal from Burt’s bees founder Roxanne Quimby later rekindled the issue: In May 2011 she offered to donate up to 70,000 acres she owns adjacent to Baxter State Park for a new national park, along with a $40 million endowment for park operations. And to appease those opposed to RESTORE’s proposal, she offered a similar amount of land for multiple-use, including hunting. Quimby’s proposal includes only lands she owns, and would create a much smaller park than what RESTORE envisioned.
A few months after Quimby made her offer known U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis held a public listening session in Millinocket, Maine. But then in February 2012, Maine’s Congressional delegation convinced Secretary Salazar to table the new proposal for the time being. So for now, the fate of millions of trees—the veritable lungs of the Northeastern U.S.—and hundreds of wildlife species may just hang in the balance.