Some of the most terrifying conversations on the planet probably take place in closed-door meetings at the White House: Hush-hush chats about drone strikes on American soil, or about how yeah, Assad definitely has a crap-ton of chemical weapons. Nobody really wants to know how close we've actually come to bombing Iran.
But there hasn't been a whole lot of talk about one of the planet's biggest masses of ice melting away. Yet, anyways. See, next week, the nation's top climatologists, NASA scientists, and Arctic ice experts are heading to the White House for an "emergency policy meeting" to tell Obama's team all about how the Arctic might melt. Two years from now. As far as topics that warrant an urgent meeting at the White House go, the potentially unhaltable Arctic death spiral should probably rank pretty high up there.
The Guardian reports that the meeting will include "NASA's acting chief scientist, Gale Allen, the director of the US National Science Foundation, Cora Marett, as well as representatives from the US Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon."
The agenda will be topped by the fact that the Arctic may be completely ice-free in just a few hundred days. Scientists have referred to this phenomenon, in which Arctic ice is melting much faster than climate models previously predicted, as "the Arctic Death Spiral." Scientists, mind you, like Dr. Walter Serreze, not sensationalism-loving journalists like me.
The Vancouver Sun helpfully supplies a list of other phrases scientists have used to describe the vanishing Arctic: "unprecedented","amazing", "extreme", "hard to exaggerate", "incredibly fast", and "heading for oblivion".
One of the scientists attending the meeting is the marine scientist Dr. Carlos Duarte. The Australian researcher notably wrote in the IPCC's last major international climate report that "The Arctic situation is snowballing: dangerous changes in the Arctic derived from accumulated anthropogenic green house gases lead to more activities conducive to further greenhouse gas emissions. This situation has the momentum of a runaway train."
And the train doesn't stop until there's no ice left in the Arctic during the summer. Remember, the Arctic ice sheds and accumulates ice cyclically—it's still going to be cold and frozen up north for the foreseeable future. But for the first time in millions of years, it might melt in August.
So what might Obama's team do about it? Not much, on the mitigation end, anyways. This ship has sailed; the Arctic is as good as thawed—there's little we can do to pervent iceless North Pole summers now. But we could, if we conjured the political will, adapt to the fallout—and maybe stop our march towards an iceless Arctic, period.
The scientists will emphasize the incipient weather extremes, rising levels, and the resultant dangers to human populations, like food shortages and exposure to violent storms. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is interested in the destabilizing nature of this change, as well as a new geopolitical hot spot that's going to be highly trafficked by Russia, Canada, Scandinavian nations and China. But the Department of Homeland Security is also interested in the positives:
"Melting sea ice in the Arctic may lead to new opportunities for shipping, tourism, and resource exploration, but the increase in human activity may require a significant increase in operational capabilities in the region in order to safeguard lawful trade and travel and to prevent exploitation of new routes for smuggling and trafficking."
The scientists will probably cringe at the word "opportunities," but the DoD has a point: a whole new frontier is opening up, and we're going to have to get used to it. The Arctic is likely going to be dead, at least part-time—the key now is going to be getting brakes installed on that runaway train before it takes out everything else, too.