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Bubbling up from below

US president Donald Trump is working as hard as he can to wreck Barack Obama’s legacy, in as many areas as possible.

Last month, it was healthcare but fortunately the Republicans had to withdraw their bill because a mutiny in their own party meant they didn’t have the votes. This month, however, it’s the environment that is feeling the spiteful wrath of 45, egged on by his cynical, acquisitive, capitalist buddies.

Once again using executive orders, perhaps because he isn’t certain he has the legislative support for this either, Trump is removing federal officials’ obligation to consider the environmental impact of policies. He also wants to open federal land, including national parks, to mining and other resource exploration. Trump has promised to protect the US’s 75,000 coal mining jobs, claiming that he supports “clean coal,” but this substance has not really been identified. Fifty coal companies have recently filed for bankruptcy, and economically, solar and other, cleaner sources of energy are overtaking coal.

And, with his administration’s usual impulse to use language to obliterate reality (“alternative facts,” anyone), reports that a supervisor told staff at the Department of Energy’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy that they are banned from using the terms “climate change,” “emissions reduction” and “Paris Agreement” in their written communications. Last year, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, which are directly connected to burning fossil fuels, were higher than they have been for the last 10,000 years at more than 400 parts per million, which is the “carbon threshold,” or really, the point of no return. The planet hasn’t been this warm for 115,000 years and it has been four million years since the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were this high so even if we were to stop burning coal tomorrow the planet would never return to pre-industrial levels. Never. Trump’s insane plan, pandering to the anti-science lobby, which denies that climate change is happening, can only raise the levels higher and speed the destruction of the atmosphere. It’s a sick irony that India and China, nations whose polluting industrial practices used to cause outrage in the first world, have committed themselves to cleaner air and water just as America is sliding back into the mire.

When Barack Obama was president, it was possible to feel a little optimism: his legislative program seemed to take climate change into account, recognizing that it is the biggest challenge we face. Maybe, we thought, just maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe we can pull back from the edge of the abyss.

Trump’s putting his fingers in his ears and covering his eyes won’t magically make climate change go away. Putting the brakes on would have required huge effort, and that effort won’t be made now. We would have had to drastically cut emissions, fervently embrace clean energy, and develop technology to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at a crazy fast rate. It would have been a miracle, but it was a possible miracle. Now, at a time when we needed to go fast-forward, we are recklessly, quickly rewinding.

What is going fast forward at a terrifying rate is the melt of the permafrost and the ice shelves. A report in Inside Climate News says that the coastal Greenland ice fields actually passed their “tipping point” twenty years ago and since then they have been disappearing three times faster than before 1997. These fields are separate from the main Greenland Ice Sheet, but they could indicate a very worrying trend in the region. If the Greenland Ice Sheet were to melt, the global sea level would rise by 24 feet. Yes, that is roughly the height of a three-storey building.

Before 1997, there was enough snow on the ice fields that the summer melt water was absorbed and froze before it could flow into the ocean. But 1997 was the year that the snow became saturated, no longer able to absorb any more water. That meant the runoff of water increased, contributing to melting and cracking on the main ice sheet itself and causing cold spots in the North Atlantic which, in turn, are affecting our climate. There is no last-minute solution to this one: the last minute passed twenty years ago.

In his groundbreaking, scary film An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore told us that the more ice melts, the faster it melts because the sun’s rays don’t bounce off darker ice, they are absorbed. As this darker ice gets thinner, scientists have discovered that it allows light into the ocean below, encouraging the growth of algae and plankton that would not have been able to survive under thick, cold, white ice. When it is floating in the open ocean’s currents, this plankton is a crucial source of food for marine life. Trapped under the ice, hungry sea creatures won’t find it as easily. An alteration in one part of the eco-system alters everything.

Further south in the tundra, the permafrost is no longer permanent and as it melts it releases the greenhouse gas methane. More than 200 lakes in the Russian Arctic, “thermokarsts,” trap melt water and their bright turquoise colour is evidence of the chemicals in the water, including methane.

The Batagaika crater in Siberia is the largest thermokarst, although it is not filled with water. It appeared in the 1960s when a forest was cleared, allowing the ground to warm and melt. Since then, the crater has grown to a kilometre long and 86 metres (more than 200 feet) deep, and it’s growing every year. The crater has exposed a history of the last Ice Age, with prehistoric bones and forests emerging from the formerly frozen ground.

In 2015, there were 15 methane bubbles visible in the Siberian tundra. By 2016, there were 7,000 and when that gas is released into the atmosphere, it will not be a happy event. Before the permafrost started to melt, the methane was trapped in bubbles below the frozen surface. Now, the surface is softer, like jelly, and could explode, sending gas into the atmosphere. The more gas in the atmosphere, the warmer our planet becomes.

Of course, it isn’t just the Siberian permafrost that is affected. In Canada, 52,000 square miles of tundra have deteriorated or “slumped,” changing the landscape and sending silt into rivers which drain into the Arctic Ocean. As usual, the indigenous people of the region will feel the effects first: the slumping tundra disrupts caribou migration routes and sometimes exposes traditional buried summer food stores to the elements, destroying the food. The increased silt in the rivers is harming their trout populations, another traditional source of food.

Vladimir Putin said this week that he’s ready to meet Donald Trump at an Arctic summit in Finland, presumably to dot the I’s and cross the T’s on some nefarious agreement to divide the energy spoils to be revealed by the melting ice. And Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump have agreed on the completion of two large, contested oil pipelines to transport all that energy across various indigenous nations, all of whom object and none of whom will see much benefit. This blog often ends on a positive note, an attempt to salvage some hope from the frightening, descending cloud of apocalyptic climate change but seriously, this week, there isn’t one. Make ice-cream while you still can, and eat it in a fort made of sofa cushions and blankets. It will change nothing, but it might feel good.

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