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 Strange things are happening to the north of us, not so far away in the Arctic Ocean.

While much Britain suffered the wettest summer for decades to the north the sea ice was melting at an unprecedented rate. Satellite images like the one shown here recorded that extent of Arctic sea ice hit a new low, the smallest area ever recorded in September 2012.   

The extent of sea ice is recorded daily by satellite and published on the US Government National Snow and Ice Data Center website, from where the map and graph are taken.


On the map the white area shows the extent of the ice cap on 2 September 2012 (the website is updated daily) and the orange line show the average (median) extent of the ice cap for the same day for the years between 1979 and 2000.




This was shocking for scientists but not entirely surprising as the area of summer sea ice has been reducing in recent years.  The graph below shows the total extent of ice day by day through the summer of 2012 (blue line) compared to the average from 1979-2000 (grey line).

The shrinking summer ice cap is one of the clearest indicators of the effect of climate change.  While the pattern and extent of melting varies from year to year the trend is unmistakeable and it is very likely that the ice cap will continue to shrink in extent. 

What does this mean for us and what does it imply about our care of creation?

There will be implications for the wildlife and human populations of the Arctic.  Polar bears spend time hunting on the ice and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers the polar bear “vulnerable” due to climate change-induced retreating sea ice.  For the human population melting permafrost undermines buildings and in the north of Canada the cost of protecting new and existing buildings is now running into hundreds of millions of dollars. 

The ice cap reflects over ninety percent of sunlight but as it melts the seawater absorbs most of the energy of the sun, rather than reflecting it.  This may have unpredictable consequence for ocean temperatures, currents and climate in areas near the Arctic – including ourselves.

Of course melting ice is good news for some.  The oil and gas industries expect to find large new reserves under the ocean floor and prospecting has begun.   Major new oil and gas fields are believed to exist in the Arctic. Similarly the growing area of open waters offers new fishing grounds for commercial fisheries.  A UK fisheries minister, Richard Benyon, has recently welcomed the opportunity to see the best available fishing opportunities in the Arctic region.  Summer shipping routes will be opened through the north west passage and the northern route to China, quicker and more direct shipping routes than the long haul around the Cape of Good Hope. The Russians have already demonstrated the potential of the route by sailing a gas supertanker through the Arctic Ocean in the summer of 2011.

The irony of such developments is difficult to ignore. Exploiting the oil and gas resources of the Arctic will add further greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, reinforcing the global warming currently being experienced.

How should congregations react to this? There may be possible responses. The first would be to set aside our concerns and continue life as normal.  There are some in government for whom responding to climate change is an expensive diversion from promoting new economic growth.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne has expressed such sentiments.  There may be others for whom the threat of climate change is so overwhelming that we can do nothing about it and who believe any action would be too small to be of any use; that our condition is hopeless.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the changes but hopelessness is not the mark of faith. There is a third response that is becoming increasingly important; that we accept that we have caused damage to creation and others through our actions; that  we must admit to this and try to make amends; that we should seek to change our ways.  Many churches and congregations have responded in this way and the growing number of eco-congregations is witness to this.   Individually eco-congregations often think that their impact is small but collectively we can see that the impact is growing.

We have come to think of climate change as a distant threat, mainly to others far way.  When its impact starts to come close to home (the Arctic Circle is only 400 miles from Shetland) the wake-up call becomes louder.  Congregations can and should be in the forefront of the response.

Adrian Shaw, Climate Change Officer, Church of Scotland

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Event date: 
Sun, 02/17/2013