The Arctic Ice Melt and the Price of Corn

This is the second in a series of articles on Arctic amplification and the record Arctic ice melt of 2012. A version of this article, originally written on September 26, 2012, appeared in my syndicated newspaper column “Your Ecological House.” Future articles in the series will elaborate on the threats the arctic ice melt poses to the world’s climate system. 

“Rich northern countries will adapt easily to climate change. It’s the poor, tropical countries that will suffer.”

That’s been the mantra of many authors who’ve speculated about how people will adapt to rising sea levels and changes in our weather patterns. It’s assumed, correctly, that Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa will be ravaged by floods and famines and will have few resources with which to adapt. It’s also been assumed that the more-developed countries will be less affected by climate change because of their fortunate location in the Northern temperate zone — where less-severe climate impacts have been anticipated — and because of their greater wealth.

America, for example, can afford to build dikes to protect its harbors from rising seas, install pipelines to move water from the Midwest to the Southwest for drought mitigation, and plant southern crops farther north to take advantage of increasingly mild climates. According to the “It’s-easy-to-adapt” crowd, climate change is no big deal.

Unfortunately, such vacuous notions could be defended until this year, helping to delay urgently needed action to slow climate change. But this is the year when climate change itself has rewritten the book about what we can realistically expect and debunked the easy-adaptation myth. This is the year of  “global weirding” — unpredictable weather, thousands of broken temperature records, and seemingly endless storms, floods and droughts — especially across the Northern temperate zone.

This summer’s drought in the U.S. — the most severe since the Dust Bowl and the devastating droughts of the 1950s — serves as a dramatic introduction to shifting global climate patterns. To quote climatologist Andrew Freedman from his Climate Central blog, “In May, the U.S. Agriculture Department predicted a record corn yield after farmers planted the largest area of corn and soybeans since 1937. Three months later…those crops lie in ruin. …the drought came on without warning…and [its] footprint…expanded from an already-high 38 percent to a devastating 64 percent [now 80 percent of the lower 48 states], engulfing…the entire corn and soybean growing region.”

What’s going on?

 The Arctic Ice Melt and the 2012 U.S. Drought

The previous article in this series discusses the alarming loss of Arctic summertime sea ice (the Polar Ice Cap). Half the ice has melted, and many climate scientists believe the rest will melt soon, probably within this decade. The arctic ice melt is directly related to the general warming of the Arctic region and its air masses, which is occurring at two to four times the rate of overall global warming.

What does Arctic warming have to do with this year’s Midwest drought, crop-destroying heat waves in Russia and record floods in France?

The polar jet stream, a four-mile high “river” of air that circulates the globe at speeds of over 100 mph, exerts an enormous influence on regional and global weather patterns. The jet stream helps move air masses, generate low-pressure centers and steer storms. “Following the sun,” the jet stream moves south in summer and north in winter, and also develops a large, somewhat random wavy pattern as it flows from west to east.

The jet stream is driven by the difference in temperature between the polar and temperate air masses, and moves more slowly if that difference decreases — as it has done in recent years due to Arctic warming. When the jet stream slows down, the weather patterns it influences tend to become “stuck,” that is, persist in one region. Thus icy storms and deadly heat waves can — and have — hung over regions for weeks rather than days. Additionally, weaker temperature differentials tend to increase the length of the jet stream’s waves, bringing frigid Arctic weather farther south and warm, almost snowless winters to places like Minnesota.

While Arctic warming is just part of the overall temperate-zone weather picture, there is increasing agreement among climatologists as to its importance. As the Arctic continues to warm, it’s likely that a weakened jet stream will drive increasingly chaotic weather to the temperate regions where most of the world’s food is produced.

This year, the price of some U.S. corn-based food products has risen as much as 17 percent while the Midwest screamed for the water that “easy adapters” would pipe to the Southwest. How much more adaptation can we afford?





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