Ihinted at our next topic in the last article, and it is about the melting of the Arctic sea ice. I, along with a large number of weather scientists, agree that this is rapidly becoming the biggest weather story of our time. So I am going to take the next few articles to explore this topic in greater detail and I invite anyone to email me your comments and opinions.
First of all, I want to break this discussion away from climate warming. While I think the two do go hand in hand, I know that there is a strong vocal group out there that believe that there is no global warming occurring; we will look at this topic later this winter. So for this set of articles, let’s stay away from the idea of global warming and simply look at what is actually happening in the Arctic.
Before we start to explore this I think I need to clarify a few points about the Arctic. First of all, there seems to be some misunderstanding of just how large the Arctic is. I’m not sure what we can blame this misunderstanding on. Maybe it has to do with the different maps we use to look at the Arctic (or maybe the lack of maps), or maybe it simply has to do with our lack of interest in this region; we really don’t study or look at this region of the world when we are growing up. Either way, most people tend to greatly underestimate its size.
One of the best ways to get an idea of how large the Arctic is, is to compare the size of Baffin Island to Manitoba. Most of us consider Manitoba to be a good size and when we talk about weather in Manitoba we know that what is happening in the north will usually not affect the south and vice versa; we are just too big. Well, if we look at the area of Manitoba we would find it to be: 649,950 square kilometres. If we were to compare this to Baffin Island, just one of the islands located in the Arctic (granted the biggest) we would find that its area is: 507,451 square kilometres, that is, 78 per cent the size of Manitoba. In fact, if we look at Canada’s Arctic land mass, we would find that it totals around 3.5 million square kilometres or nearly 35 per cent of Canada’s land mass.
To this land mass we can add another 2.2 million square kilometres in Europe and Asia which gives us a total Arctic land area of about 5.7 million square kilometres – more than half the size of Canada. So there is a lot of land in the Arctic, but the Arctic does not stop there. On top of all this land, much of the Arctic is covered by ocean. While the Arctic Ocean is the smallest of all the world’s oceans, it is still pretty darn big. The Arctic Ocean comprises roughly 14 million square kilometres. Add to this the 5.7 million square kilometres of Arctic land mass and we have an area that is just shy of 20 million square kilometres.
These 20 million square kilometres play a fairly significant role in the Earth’s climate system. Being at the top of the world, it does not receive a lot of the sun’s energy and because of this it will always be cold, especially in the winter when a large portion of the Arctic is in darkness.
Now, if you remember back to the early classes of weather school you will remember that the general circulation pattern of our planet is created by a couple of factors. The first is that the poles (Arctic and Antarctic) do not receive much energy from the sun and are therefore cold. On the other hand, the tropics do receive a lot of energy and are warm. The Earth then tries to equalize this temperature difference by moving warm air towards the poles and cold air towards the equator. The second factor is that the Earth spins, which causes this northward and southward movement of air to bend and twist creating much of the weather we all experience.
Now, if these two basic systems remain in relative balance then our general weather and global circulation will remain somewhat the same. If one of them changes, then all bets are off. This is exactly what we are starting to see happen in the Arctic and this is why this will likely be the biggest weather story of our lives. Again, if you are anti-global warming that’s just fine, but even if you are, I cannot see how you can ignore what is going on in the Arctic over the last five to six decades. Just what is happening? We will have to wait until the next issue, so stay tuned.