Fifty-two scientists, journalists and tourists were airlifted from the stranded research vessel MV Akademik Shokalskiy on Thursday. Twenty-two crew members remained aboard the stricken ship, which has been stuck in Antarctic ice since Christmas Eve.
Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said this week that the extreme cold snap across much of this province has caused record-setting energy use. According to the CBC, the utility had to ask Corner Brook Pulp and Paper to scale back production in order to take pressure off demand.
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported this week that because of energy-efficient housing, appliances and gadgets, power use in the U.S. has declined to 2001 levels.
What do these three stories have in common?
They demonstrate how complex factors such as climate change and energy efficiency make it nigh on impossible to realistically predict the future of energy use.
The icebound ship is pertinent because it demonstrates that climate and weather are two different things. Short-term trends and local conditions only form a small part of the bigger picture.
Climate change skeptics have jumped on the irony of the ship’s plight, given that climate scientists talk extensively about polar melt. Scientists, meanwhile, point out the ice the vessel is trapped in is older ice that has broken off from the Antarctic icecap precisely because of global warming.
The fact is, the Antarctic (and Arctic) still have ice. The Antarctic continent in particular is very large and still brutally cold in many spots. This has nothing to do with climate change.
Similarly, this province is renowned for its variable weather, as is any region that falls in the path of major weather systems. An extended cold snap every now and then does not make a trend. Similarly, a temporary surge in energy demand provides little evidence for long-term trends.
The final story, however, does provide some fodder for energy usage trends, because human advancements in efficiency are not anomalous events. They are a significant factor in calculating long-term trends.
Newfoundland Hydro and its parent company Nalcor have incorporated myriad factors in predicting future demand. But when it comes to efficiency, the studies focus only on energy-saving initiatives offered by the company. Short shrift is given to technological advances in household devices.
Put it this way: you can power your iPhone for a year on the amount of power it takes to light 10 lightbulbs for one hour. It’s true that a healthy economy generally means more energy use. New homes are being built all the time. And when new industries come on stream, the electrical meters really start spinning.
But all these factors will reach a saturation point. There will only be so many new housing starts and new appliances.
At some point, the expansion slows and efficiency kicks in — especially when power prices rise.
It’s easy to point at one indicator or another and jump to conclusions. But one icebound ship in Antarctica is no more an argument against climate change than one heat wave in July is proof of it.
And human innovation is as important a factor as any in predicting the shape of things to come.