Aboard the icebreaker Polarstern researchers have been participating in the world’s largest-ever Arctic expedition MOSAiC (Multidisciplinary drifting observatory for the study of Arctic climate). Recently the ship has once again returned to land, after being away for six months during which the pandemic has slowed the world dramatically. Lockdowns have meant this year will see the biggest drop in emissions since WWII.
And yet in May atmospheric concentrations of CO2 showed a new monthly high. As Richard Betts at the UK Met Office has said, it’s like filling a bath from a tap. Putting CO2 in the atmosphere slightly less fast than before just means the bath is filled a little slower than before, but its existing water level represents the historically accumulated concentrations and they need historically significant actions to come down. The world knows these actions are needed but the political will to take them has only weakened as international cooperation, in general, has weakened.
The Polarstern’s experience only reinforces the urgency to act as the thinning Arctic sea ice made for many operational challenges. The Economist reports that researchers found the ice to be more breakable than they anticipated and even thinner than they anticipated. A worsening melt cycle increases the amount of CO2 present in the basin and reduces its capacity to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Thus it is a critical teller as well as the maker of climate change.
There are experts who describe the Covid pandemic as the most forecast, anticipated crisis in modern history – particularly after SARS. But over a span of time that distinction will be undoubtedly claimed by climate change. There will be no vaccine for it. As much chaos as the pandemic has endangered should be a warning to forestall the chaos of worsening climate change. It is a slower burning emergency, giving us plenty of notice to act, and so the world must act. Planetary level action is needed to reduce atmospheric CO2 and meet the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5C.