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May 10, 2018

I haven't written about global warming in a while here on the blog, and I'll admit it's partly because the news about the United States government is such an unending torrent of fetidness that writing about it seems like spitting in the ocean.

But the planet doesn't care about my feelings. It only responds to stimuli, such as, for example, us dumping 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year. For the first time in recorded history the monthly average of CO2 in the air hit 410 parts per million in April 2018. That may not sound like much, but dosage makes the poison; that's enough carbon dioxide to cause a significant greenhouse effect. This is the most basic of science, something we've known for well over a century.

The Earth's climate runs on heat. It's what causes the air to circulate, water to evaporate, weather to happen. When you mess with the climate's fuel, you mess with the climate.

We've been seeing the effects of this for years, and I need not enumerate them for you here (NASA has done that for me anyway). But we've just reached yet another milestone that's worth pointing out: Sea ice in the Bering Sea hit an all-time low in April. Normally, the waters between Russia and Alaska are covered in ice this time of year, to the tune of half a million square kilometers.

But not in 2018. It's now "basically ice-free," according to Walt Meier, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data center.

The Bering Sea, between Russia and Alaska, is normally covered with ice in April (top, from 2013), but in 2018 was essentially ice-free (bottom). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Joshua Stevens / National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The Bering Sea, between Russia and Alaska, is normally covered with ice in April (top, from 2013), but in 2018 was essentially ice-free (bottom). Credit: NASA Earth Observatory / Joshua Stevens / National Snow and Ice Data Center. 

This is serious, for many reasons. It changes the balance in the ecosystem in that region as fresh water flows into the sea from the melting ice. On a larger scale, Arctic ice melt changes the salinity of the ocean waters to the south. Salt water is denser and sinks, while fresh water is lighter and floats above it. Too much fresh water from ice melting can actually fundamentally change the way water flows from the poles to the equator, and that is a critical system that exchanges heat around the planet. That affects weather globally.

It affects U.S. weather, profoundly. The jet stream acts a bit like a fence, keeping the frigid Arctic air near the pole. The jet stream is stabilized by the temperature difference between polar air and air at lower latitudes. As the Arctic warms, that gradient weakens, and so does the jet stream. The flow of air can meander, causing that brutally cold air to drop into the U.S. The common name for this is a "polar vortex," though that's misleading — the vortex is just that flow of air; it's the meanders that bring down the freezing air.

Not-so-incidentally, Arctic sea ice reaches a maximum every year around March, and this year was the second lowest maximum extent on record, too.

Arctic sea ice extent (areas covered with more than 15% ice) plotted versus time.

Arctic sea ice extent (areas covered with more than 15% ice) plotted versus time. The gray line is the 1981-2010 average, and the gray shaded area is the statistical range you expect (2 standard deviations). The extent for 2016 (which had a record low maximum) is in red, and 2018 so far in orange. Credit: NSIDC

So why bring this up now? Well, the timeliness of both the sea ice extent and the CO2 records makes this as good a time as any.

But there's another reason. Denying global warming is practically a plank of the Republican party (though there are some exceptions, they are few compared to the number of GOP congresspeople). But there's some good news.

The midterm elections on November 6, 2018, are now 180 days away.

That seems like a nice round auspicious number, so here we are. Is your representative a science denier? Vote. Them. OUT.

Get started today. Make sure you're registered to vote. The rules are different state by state, so check. And if you're 17 now, but turn 18 by November 6, your voice will count. Register.

It's not too late to stop this slow boil. Our planet is sick, but we can still bring this fever down.

P.S. Did you know there are a lot of scientists running for Congress? 314 Action has a (partial) list, so see if there's one running in your district!