Hurricane Sandy shows what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic

by Travis Nichols

November 2, 2012

A young polar bear (Ursus maritimus) wanders on ice, seen from the Greenpeace ship during an expedition to document the lowest sea ice level on record.

© Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace

[caption id="attachment_12201" align="alignright" width="600" caption="A young polar bear wanders on ice, seen from the Greenpeace ship during an expedition to document the lowest sea ice level on record."][/caption] This week, Shell finally put its 2012 Arctic drilling season out of its misery. After a summer of snafus and false starts, the window for drilling closed on the global oil giant--until next year when it plans to try once again to exploit Arctic ice melt for profit. The company has been up there rolling the dice with our global future, betting against the odds that it wont fail as miserably at Arctic execution as it has at Arctic preparation--that it wont, for example, accidentally break the equipment it plans to use in case of a spill during a trial run. While this may seem like a remote, snowy problem for polar bears, native Alaskans, and environmental hand-wringers, Hurricane Sandy has shown us this week that what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic. [caption id="attachment_12203" align="alignright" width="600" caption="Fires burn in Lavallette in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy on the New Jersey coast."][/caption] While corporate interests invested in burning fossil fuels have tried to keep Arctic destruction out of sight and out of mind for years in the lower 48, extreme weather like this weeks frankenstorm shows us in a visceral and immediate way that Arctic consequences are coming for us. And it isnt going to be pretty. This summer, while Shell practiced drilling for oil, scientists in the Arctic recorded less sea ice than they ever had before. This seemed like bad news for the narwhal, but just two months later, we see that its also bad news for us. Were seeing the consequences of Arctic destruction right here on the East Coast, right now. As everyone knows by now, even if some still choose to deny it, the global warming pollution caused by burning oil, coal, and natural gas trap heat in the Earths atmosphere, warming the planet and melting Arctic ice in bulk. If we dont start using the alternative sources for energy we have now, the Arctic will melt away sooner rather than later, and ice melt at the top of the earth will continue to be part of the global feedback loop contributing to the chaos down below. [caption id="attachment_12208" align="alignright" width="300" caption="The tracks of a roller coaster lie in the surf off the destroyed Casino Pier in Seaside Heights on the New Jersey shore in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy."][/caption] Rising coastal waters in places like New Jersey create higher baselines for storm surges, which means storm protections built 160 years ago for places like Atlantic City are, as we can see, becoming tragically obsolete. Its darkly comic to hear Jon Stewart say on the Daily Show: Do you ever have one of those days when everywhere you ever loved as a child is under water? Soon, it could to be reality for everyone within sight of a coast. The sea is coming closer to property and people in coastal areas, and the damage from these storms are only going to get worse. How is this connected to the Arctic? The increasingly ice-less Arctic is giving us new jet stream patterns. The jet stream that blocked Hurricane Sandy from moving back out to sea is, according to Jennifer Francis, a a research professor at Rutgers, likely a direct consequence of this summers Arctic melt. Its the exact pattern she says she would expect to see more of in response to sea ice and enhanced Arctic melting. Burning more fossil fuels means less sea ice. Less sea ice means more blocking jet streams. And while a blocking jet stream in and of itself isnt a huge deal, when it is paired with a late season Atlantic hurricane made possible by higher sea temperatures caused by climate change, you have something new and nasty destroying the Eastern Seaboard. This is the future, brought to you by Shell, Duke Energy, Exxon and other companies betting against reality. Worse, this is a gamble implicitly endorsed by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who continue to remain (mostly) silent about whats happening all around them. Hurricane Sandy is a tragedy, plain and simple. But as we work to support those in immediate peril today, we must remember that disasters like Sandy are not simply acts of nature. A reckless and increasingly desperate industry turns natural disasters into unnatural catastrophes. And if were to have a coastal future in America, this industry must be stopped.

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