The White House Convenes Scientists to Discuss the World's New Ocean

The Atlantic Wire

RELATED: Gore: Obama Has 'Failed to Stand Up' on Global Warming

Despite its straight-from-science-fiction premise, it's real: A group of scientists meeting at the White House to discuss a brand-new ocean. Impending Arctic ice melt makes this just another day in the geopolitics of climate change.

RELATED: Five Best Friday Columns

There's a bit of mystery shrouding the meeting, which apparently came to light after an Australian scientist's participation was reported in that country's press. It's not clear when it will take place, or if it already has. Details of attendance are similarly sketchy; The Guardian reports that it will include "Gale Allen, the director of the US National Science Foundation, Cora Marett, as well as representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon," and ten Arctic specialists including Carlos Duarte, the aforementioned Australian.

RELATED: Climate Change Puts Panda Population at Risk; Why Trees Fall

The topic of discussion, however, is clear. Last year, sea ice in the Arctic reached its lowest point in recorded history. Current estimates, including from Duarte, indicate that the region could be entirely ice-free in short order.

[Duarte] said melting of the ice was accelerating faster than any of the models could predict and the prospect of an Arctic Ocean free of ice had been brought forward to 2015, compared with a prediction in 2007 that at least one-third of the normal extent of sea ice would remain in summer in 2100.

The decline in ice volume has been a steady progression for decades, prompting many to label the drop as "the Arctic ice death spiral." Data visualization expert Jim Pettit illustrates the spiral, by presenting the average ice volume each September — the month during which the ice typically hits its lowest extent.

RELATED: Five Best Wednesday Columns

RELATED: How China Could Stop Environmental Protests; Australia's Marine Parks

It's important to note that there isn't much that can be done about the ice melt at this point, as the Motherboard blog points out.

This ship has sailed; the Arctic is as good as thawed—there's little we can do to pervent iceless North Pole summers now.

The scientists will emphasize the incipient weather extremes, rising levels, and the resultant dangers to human populations, like food shortages and exposure to violent storms. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is interested in the destabilizing nature of this change, as well as a new geopolitical hot spot that's going to be highly trafficked by Russia, Canada, Scandinavian nations and China.

There's another likely topic of discussion: the dangers and opportunities of resource extraction. One of the great ironies of Arctic ice melt — a situation spurred by greenhouse-gas-related climate warming — is that it facilitates increased fossil fuel exploration. Last year, the government issued a permit allowing Shell Oil to begin drilling in the Arctic. That experiment went poorly, and Shell has decided not to try again this year. (The Justice Department is reviewing Shell's mistakes.) But Shell and others will try again in the future, particularly as the period during which exploration can take place grows larger as there's less ice to contend with.

There will be more meetings like this in the future, on other areas in which climate change will shift American interests. The Obama White House has a Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which is tasked with "outlining the Federal Government's progress in expanding and strengthening the Nation's capacity to better understand, prepare for, and respond to extreme events and other climate change impacts." Obama's climate change prevention group, the Environmental Protection Agency, is meanwhile awaiting its new administrator.

View Comments