The Climatologist who came in from the cold

J.P. Leous

From 007 to Austin Powers, we love a good spy story. What’s not to like? Intrigue. Cool gadgets. Polar bears. State secrets.

“Wait,” you say. “Polar bears?”

That’s right. U.S. military satellites aren’t just focused on Russia and rogue states…They also keep a close eye on the states of former rogue veep nominees. Alaska, home to more than just Palins and polar bears, is also the front-line when it comes to global warming, as evidenced by previously-secret images of melting sea ice off the states' coast.

For years government satellites have recorded the melting and retreat of sea ice in the arctic. Unfortunately, the Bush administration kept this important scientific evidence secret — preventing scientists from accessing critical information that demonstrates the need for swift action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ramp up efforts to protect natural resources and communities from the effects of climate change.

This all changed in July when the Obama administration released 1,000 spy satellite images that detail the extent of just how rapid sea ice is melting — a direct consequence of an economy tied to rampant fossil fuel use.

Satellite images of polar ice sheets taken in July 2006 and July 2007 showing the retreating ice during the summer. Public Domain.

Some of the most shocking images in this collection capture the loss of summer sea ice near the Alaskan port of Barrow. From 2006 to 2007 massive sheets of ice disappeared as a result of global warming. 2007 was an especially bad year for fans of sea ice — including polar bears that rely on this ice as hunting platforms — with a record one million square kilometers of ice lost. Levels for 2008 and 2009 were little better.

Shishmaref, Alaska house after storm. Courtesy Shishmaref Relocation Coalition.All this bodes very poorly not only for polar bear populations but also for human communities. Most directly, sea ice protects many Alaskan communities from coastal erosion, which is already a problem in several native Alaskan communities that have homes literally falling into the sea.

What about those of us in the Lower 48? Sea ice loss affects us directly as well, although in a longer but equally dramatic way.

If you’ve ever worn a black shirt on a sunny day you’ve felt first-hand what scientists call an “albedo effect.” Essentially, darker surfaces have a lower albedo — meaning they absorb more of the sun’s energy (and thus warm up). So your black shirt has a low albedo (and you feel warmer in the sun) whereas your white shirt has a high albedo (and you don’t heat up as much).

Now think of the dark ocean as your black shirt and sea ice sheets as your white shirt. Now scale that up to the million square kilometers of sea ice loss and you get a sense of how important melting sea ice is to global warming.

Scientists worry about this dangerous feedback loop where global warming melts sea ice, which in turn causes sea surface temperatures to rise, thus causing more sea ice melt, and so on. If you’d like more info on how these and other effects can hit closer to home, check this out.

It’s no state secret that global warming is already affecting communities and treasured landscapes across the country; and you don’t need Top Secret clearance to help put us on a more sustainable path.

Take just a few minutes and contact your Senators today and tell them we need more clean energy now.

Satellite images of polar ice sheets taken in July 2006 and July 2007 showing the retreating ice during the summer. Public Domain.
Shishmaref, Alaska house after storm. Courtesy Shishmaref Relocation Coalition.