Science News

As this is being written, Hurricane Wilma has just ravaged Florida after doing a number on Mexico and Cuba. At the same time, scientists are warning of massive die-offs of Antarctic fish and the melting of the polar ice cap. What do these seeming unconnected events have in common? The short answer is hot water. The long answer is rising sea temperatures caused by global warming.

While Wilma travels northward, yet another named storm is being tracked, Tropical Depression Alpha. And the hurricane season is not over until November. What has fueled these hurricanes, increasing both their frequency and intensity, is the warming ocean waters. The ocean waters, in turn, have been warmed from heat trapped in the atmosphere by human-produced greenhouse gases.

It takes lots of energy to heat the oceans. Stored energy, in the form of higher water temperatures, is the ultimate cause of hurricanes. The most recent hurricane season is not a fluke — it is the future.

Another consequence of rising ocean temperatures is the rise in the waters around the Antarctic and in the Arctic Ocean. In the Antarctic the water has already warmed over 1 degree Celsius, and 20 percent of the sea ice cover around the continent has disappeared since 1979. Two consequences follow from the warming of the waters around the Antarctic. First, many marine species that depend on stable, cold temperatures will die off, followed immediately afterwards by the penguins and seals that feed on them.

Meanwhile, up at the North Pole, this past summer the ice cap shrunk to its smallest area ever recorded. At the present rate, the North Pole will be free from ice during the summers within 20 to 30 years.

The shrinking of the polar ice cap has started a capitalist feeding frenzy. Shipping through Arctic routes would save thousands of miles over current routes. There are three potential routes: the Northwest Passage from the eastern U.S. to Asia, the Arctic Bridge from Norway and Russia to Canada, and the Northern Sea Route, from Europe to East Asia across the north of Russia. The melting of the cap also opens up new fisheries to commercial exploitation. But the real prize is under the sea — oil and natural gas.

As most oil producing countries fast approach Hubbert’s Peak, the point when 50 percent of their total oil supply is used up, the last remaining extensive reserves are found in the Arctic. This oil and natural gas is difficult to drill for and transport (and hence expensive) but with shrinking supplies and growing demand, it is a treasure no capitalist could resist. The problem of course is that continued reliance on the internal combustion engine, the main use of oil in the world, the more greenhouse gases we produce and the hotter the planet gets.

Continued reliance on the auto and its internal combustion engine is only part of the problem. The melting of the polar ice cap creates another positive feedback loop. Without the cap to insulate the water and reflect sunlight, the water will get warmer faster, accelerating global warming.

A second positive feedback loop may also come into play — methane frozen in the permafrost could be released as the permafrost melts. Currently, permafrost is melting like never before across northern Russia, Canada and Alaska.

Capitalism has gotten us all in hot water. The expression “in hot water” comes from a so-called test for witches. Women accused of witchcraft were placed in hot, boiling water. Those that did not die, confessed. Now capitalism is boiling the human race alive in hot water. We have nothing to confess, but we have much to do, starting with changing the crazy economic system of capitalism that has place us in this hot water in the first place.