Ice scientists are mostly cheerful and pragmatic. Like many other researchers coolly observing the rapid warming of the world, they share a gallows humour and are cautious about entering the political fray. Not Peter Wadhams. The former director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and professor of ocean physics at Cambridge has spent his scientific life researching the ice world, or the cryosphere, and in just 30 years has seen unimaginable change. When in 1970 he joined the first of what would be more than 50 polar expeditions, the Arctic sea ice covered around 8m sq km at its September minimum. Today, it hovers at around 3.4m, and is declining by 13% a decade. In 30 years Wadhams has seen the Arctic ice thin by 40%, the world change colour at its top and bottom and the ice disappear in front of his eyes.
In a new book, published just as July 2016 is confirmed by Nasa as the hottest month ever recorded, this most experienced and rational scientist states what so many other researchers privately fear but cannot publicly say – that the Arctic is approaching a death spiral which may see the entire remaining summer ice cover collapse in the near future. The warming now being widely experienced worldwide is concentrated in the polar regions and Wadhams says we will shortly have ice-free Arctic Septembers, expanding to four or five months with no ice at all. The inevitable result, he predicts, will be the release of huge plumes of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, accelerating warming even further. He and other polar experts have moved from being field researchers to being climate change pioneers in the vanguard of the most rapid and drastic change that has taken place on the planet in many thousands of years. This is not just an interesting change happening in a remote part of the world, he says, but a catastrophe for mankind.
Britain and northern Europe may have had average temperatures, but 500 million people in the Middle East and north Africa, along with most of south-east Asia, have experienced droughts and searingly hot days and nights, which are only partly to do with the natural El Niño phenomenon. Meanwhile, China, India and the US have seen some of their longest heatwaves and worst floods in decades, and nearly 100 million people will need food aid in the coming months because of disrupted rainfall patterns. Mitribah in Kuwait has reported a world record 54C, India and Iran have both recorded their highest ever temperatures, and deadly heatwaves have struck China, the US, Indonesia and New Zealand. We are perilously close to the 1.5C limit of warming that all countries signed up to in Paris last year and on track for a 3C-4C increase which would make much of the world uninhabitable.
How to proceed safely in a warming world without disastrous unintended consequences? The need for truly urgent action is undeniable, but by the time answers have been found to the massive questions of science, engineering and governance that Wadhams agrees need to be solved before geo-engineering on a planetary scale can go ahead, it will be far too late. Climate change has been caused by ignorance and stupidity and cannot be solved by endorsing more of the same with geo-engineering. The only answer is reducing greenhouse emissions. Fast.