An Arctic Sea Ice Low Point

One of the most closely watched benchmarks of climate change reached a modern high – or low – point this week, as ice covering the Arctic Ocean diminished to the smallest extent observed since satellite records began in 1979.

As always, there will be debate over exactly what this means, but it certainly means one thing: As of this week, ice covered less of the world’s northernmost sea than man has ever measured previously. And it means the previous low-ice mark, set in 2007, did not represent the bottoming out of a natural cycle of greater summer ice melt.

Graphics from the National Snow and Ice Data Center show the remaining ice cover as a relatively compact, symmetrical circle that is centered near the North Pole and extends southward to the Canadian archipelago. This is not a continuous mass of ice; the ocean is considered to be “ice-covered” with as little as 15 percent ice floating in a given surface area of water. There is likely to be further shrinkage over the next several weeks as the melting season reaches its typical seasonal end, although given the high latitude of the ice remaining and the rapidly shortening days of the boreal summer, the ice cover may stabilize a bit earlier than usual this year.

The season in the Arctic has been an interesting one. It began with greater than usual sea ice in the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast, a region that experienced an unusually harsh winter in 2011-12. The spring ice cover was also about average in the seas near Greenland and northeastern Canada, a region where ice had been virtually absent the previous year in the aftermath of a freakishly warm winter. But in the spring of 2012, there was hardly any ice in the oceans north of Scandinavia and western Russia, so the overall ice pack was smaller than average when the melt got underway in earnest.

The ice-free zone expanded steadily eastward off the coast of Siberia, but it grew more slowly in the western Arctic near Alaska until an unusually intense summer storm – considerably more powerful than Tropical Storm Isaac was when it approached the Gulf Coast yesterday – crossed the region in early August. The ice pack in the western Arctic Ocean nearly disappeared in the space of a few days, probably due to a combination of warm air surging north ahead of the storm, wave action from the powerful winds, and the wind itself either pushing loose ice harder against the shrinking polar ice pack or southward into warmer seas.

The diminished ice coverage still has not opened the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic through the Canadian Arctic to the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. Although the passage has been open in other recent years, the NSIDC graphics still show ice blocking some of the narrow straits in Canadian waters. The Northern Sea Route, which leads from western Europe across Russia to the Pacific, looks like it might now be open for shipping.

Reduced ice in the Arctic is not the only evidence of an extreme Northern Hemisphere summer in 2012. On our continent, an intense and sprawling early-summer heat wave morphed into severe drought over much of the central United States. In Europe, just last week, high-elevation stations across the Alps set warm-weather records; some peaks were without snow cover for the first time since record-keeping began.

One of the oddities of “global warming” is that it is not all about warming. It is really more about extremes. While much of the U.S. baked in heat and drought during the summer’s opening weeks, Britons wondered if it would ever stop raining. (It did, more or less, just in time for the London Olympics.) It was cold and wet in Scandinavia, too; parts of northern Sweden experienced snow in early June.

As I have written here before, I don’t doubt that climate is changing and that humans play a role, even though I am skeptical of our ability to accurately model such change and of our readiness to develop wise policy responses. A new record minimum for Arctic sea ice does not change this. But it does remind us that the planet is not going to wait for us to decide whether it would be wise to stop fueling our cars with feed corn that requires rainfall, fertilizer and diesel fuel to produce. Another drought like this year’s just might make the decision for us.

About Larry M. Elkin 556 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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