The average American adult generates enough carbon through their day-to-day activities to melt approximately 50 square meters (538 square feet) of Arctic sea ice per year, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany claim in a new study.
In fact, as lead author and climate scientist Dr. Dirk Notz and his colleagues reported Thursday in the journal Science, every metric ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by people is directly responsible for the loss of three square meters (32 square feet) of Arctic sea ice.
The study was designed to demonstrate the direct impact that that individuals are having on the global climate, the Institute explained in a statement, and also demonstrates that driving a motor vehicle just 90 miles causes nearly a square foot of Arctic ice to melt, CBS News added.
Dr. Notz explained that his team used observations, statistics and 30 different computer models to calculate how much sea ice was lost per ton of CO2 emitted, then used mathematical formulas to determine the impact of the average individual’s actions on that sea ice when it is at its lowest point during the month of September, according to CBS and the Los Angeles Times.
Study reveals how individual actions contribute to climate change
“For us, this is really the first time that we do have an intuitive understanding of how our individual actions really contribute to global warming,” Dr. Notz, who authored the new study with Julienne Stroeve from the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado and University College London, said in an interview with the Times.
“So far, when we talked about global warming, it was always these very big numbers, like billions of tons of carbon dioxide – or very small numbers, like 0.1 degree of temperature change,” he added. “But now suddenly, with this three-square-meter loss per ton of CO2, it gives a very, very concrete and intuitive understanding of how we all cause Arctic sea ice to melt.”
As a greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide traps heat in the planet’s atmosphere, causing temperatures to increase. This, in turn, causes ice around the poles to melt and the sea level to rise, resulting in even more pronounced changes to the climate, according to experts in the field. Human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for most of the CO2 emitted worldwide, but researchers had never calculated the impact of the average person – until now.
“Climate change has often felt like a rather abstract notion,” Stroeve said in a statement. “Our results allow us to overcome this perception. For example, it is now straight-forward to calculate that the carbon dioxide emissions for each seat on a return flight from, say, London to San Francisco causes about 5 square meters of Arctic sea ice to disappear.”
The study authors also examined the link between CO2 emissions and sea-ice loss. As Dr. Notz explained, “Put simply, for each ton of carbon dioxide emission, the climate warms a little bit. To compensate for this warming, the sea-ice edge moves northward to a region with less incoming solar radiation. This then causes the sea-ice area to shrink. Simple geometric reasons cause these processes to combine to the observed linearity.”
Image credit: Thinkstock
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