Extreme weather events of all kinds grew in frequency and intensity all around the world in 2012, from China to Russia, Britain, Europe, Australia, South America, the Mideast, and of course, the sensitive Arctic.
Arctic sea ice is about half of what it was in 2000. In September 2012, it shrank to its smallest size ever, down about 18% from its previous low in 2007. The record-breaking loss of Arctic sea ice and spring snow cover affects weather patterns around the world and creates dangerous feedback loops that make climate change self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating.
As we lose the sea ice that reflects back the sun’s energy, the “Albedo effect” kicks into play. The exposed water and land absorb more heat, escalating the pace of ice melt and making it harder for new ice to form. The loss of ice affects the circulation of the Gulf Stream, which in turn affects global weather patterns.
November 2012 was the 333rd consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The resulting increase in atmospheric water vapor, along with more extreme ocean surface temperatures, serves to fuel hurricanes, tornadoes, and other more frequent and intense storms. “This is not a matter of belief. This is high school science class,” as NASA climate scientist James Hansen recently wrote in the UK Guardian.
The year 2012 was officially the hottest year on record for the United States’ lower 48 states and the second most extreme. It’s small wonder that Hansen, who has been warning about climate change for some 25 years, is becoming increasingly outspoken, to the point of getting arrested with other activists protesting the Tar Sands XL pipeline.
On Martin Luther King’s birthday this week, Hansen delivered poignant remarks at the White House, calling on President Obama to exert stronger leadership on climate change. He began by describing his tears of joy on election night 2008, and concluded:
“It is not easy to find an Abraham Lincoln or a Winston Churchill. But we are here today looking to find that in you, Mr. President. And until you summon it within yourself, let me assure you that we will return, and our numbers will grow…. We will be here until we are assured that the history books will rightfully record— that you were the person we were looking for—the person who turned these dreams… into reality.”