Leadership Talks – Peter Wadhams, The Evidences of Climate Change Effect

22 December 2021

The protagonist of the second of the BBS Leadership Talks, dedicated to the challenges organizations will have to face in the post-pandemic future, is Peter Wadhams, author of the essay “A Farewell to Ice,” Emeritus Professor at the University of Cambridge and Chairman of the Scientific Committee of Extreme E.

Wadhams’ talk addressed the difficult and unfortunately very topical issue of the effects of climate change. His point of view is particularly authoritative because, in addition to being a professor and an author, he is one of the greatest living experts on sea ice and polar oceans. Winner of numerous awards for his commitment to field research, Wadhams has led nearly fifty polar expeditions, including six well-known submarine trips to the North Pole, and is a member of the Royal Geographical Society, the Finnish Academy, and the Arctic Institute of North America.

His submarine explorations in the seventies and eighties allowed him to collect data that showed how climate change in the polar region is acting quickly and decisively. In those years, indeed, Wadhams began to notice a 15% thinning of the ice layer north of Greenland. A percentage that at the end of the nineties had already reached 40% compared to the previous two decades. Wadhams’ studies allowed him to publish important research in Nature in 1990, which remained for a long time an unheard cry of alarm, while the essay “A Farewell to Ice” dates back to 2017 and outlines a situation that has further worsened: in 2012 sea ice-covered 3.4 million sq. km of Arctic Ocean, while in the seventies there were 8 million sq. km covered by ice. 

During his speech, which began with a recommendation to learn more about the topic through the documentary Ice on Fire produced and narrated by Leonardo Di Caprio and available on Netflix, Wadhams showed the current situation of polar ice and explained how and why its steady decrease affects global warming. Among the main consequences of the decrease in Arctic ice, we find the decrease of the albedo whose consequence is an increase in global temperature that is equivalent to about 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions. In addition to this, it is necessary to consider the end of the conditioning effect of air, useful to maintain the temperature of the water surface around 0 degrees through the contact of air masses with sea ice. If the ice is lost, the water temperature can reach 7 degrees on the surface, causing the melting of the permafrost and releasing large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Greenhouse gases, first of all, carbon dioxide, are at the basis of global warming and their emission does not show signs of decreasing. Indeed, it is estimated that since 1960 the rate of growth of carbon dioxide has been such that it has actively interfered with the natural system in an unprecedented way, perhaps even more serious than the climatic disruption, caused, it is thought, by an asteroid, which led to the extinction of dinosaurs. 

A CO2 molecule persists in the climate system for over 100 years, and the amount that is already in the air still has a high warming potential, perhaps as much as half of the total. The level currently averages 409 parts per million (ppm), compared to a tolerable level of around 280 ppm. The scientific community agrees that a safe threshold value is around 350 ppm: to reach it, removing 1% of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year, would take about 45 years. It is, therefore, necessary to think of integrated methods: reduction of emissions and elimination of CO2 from the air, since it is increasingly evident that the reduction of emissions alone is no longer able to solve the problem. The challenge of the future, especially for those involved in sustainability today, is therefore also a technological one because perhaps it will be innovation that will save the future of the planet.

Wadhams also outlined a very brief history of Arctic ice that is inevitably linked to the history of climate change. In the last 2 billion years the climate on Earth has changed slowly, alternating long warm phases with as many cold phases. In the last 6 million years the average temperature of the Earth has been sufficiently low to allow minimal temperature changes due to the Earth’s motion to cause the ice ages that have characterized human evolution on the planet. Thereafter, the climate remained stable enough for humans to grow and develop, until the turning point of the industrial revolution when temperatures began to rise uncontrollably. Therefore, global warming began in the mid-19th century and was clearly due to the decision to burn large amounts of coal first and fossil fuels later. The first cry of alarm in this sense was in 1896, by a Swedish scientist who clearly indicated the causes of global warming. 

The situation of disappearing Arctic ice is a key issue here. In summer, the ice disappears: in recent years, the melting of summer ice has been greater than its growth in winter, and within a few years, we risk having an ice-free Arctic September. Because “if the whole globe is responding to climate change, the Arctic is responding much more rapidly.” To illustrate the situation, Wadhams showed some significant images of the “before and after” of rising temperatures, which of course also means a loss of coastal land and safe traveling conditions. Indeed, multi-year ice, now virtually gone, has a thickness of 2.5 meters, making it very safe, while seasonal ice, which reforms every winter, reaches a maximum thickness of 1.5 meters, then melts in the summer. “We’ve lost three-quarters of the summer Arctic ice in 40 years,” said Wadhams, who then showed other effects of melting ice and thoroughly illustrated the differences between multiyear ice, now lost, and seasonal ice, also using graphics and images taken by the ships and submarines on which he conducted his research.  

With the images of fires in Siberia, which continue to burn even under the snow, “black ice” in Greenland that melts and slides towards the sea, helping to raise its level, data, and graphs that leave you speechless, Wadhams explains how the future, in the next 5 years, may be characterized by very serious weather events whose origin lies precisely in the damage we have caused to the Arctic ecosystem, the real climate barrier of our planet. All coastal countries are at risk, as they may see huge mass migrations triggered by flooding. But not only that. If we do not achieve the international goals, keeping the temperature rise below 1.5 ° C, we will face several events that will threaten our survival. If on the one hand the population will increase, and with it, the need for food, on the other hand, global warming will lead to a reduction in arable land, crops, and available water resources. As a result, the price of food will increase and, with it, so will poverty, especially in areas of high population growth such as Africa, and the social problems and management of migratory flows connected with it. This is why the major theme of sustainability today is linked not only to nature but also to the survival of the human species. 

Wadhams concluded his speech by returning to the goals set to reduce CO2 not only in terms of cutting emissions but also with regard to the development of new technologies to remove the excess carbon dioxide already present in the air, illustrating the most current and interesting ones. Wadhams explains that there are interesting solutions, in which it is necessary to continue to invest, but for them to be implemented, decisions must also be taken by the political classes. The solutions suggested by the scientific community must be concretely implemented by governments, otherwise initiatives such as Cop 26 risk becoming useless.


Back To Top