Climate Chaos Brings the Big Melt to the Far North

A summary of reports on and effects of global warming on the Arctic. 2005, the second warmest year on record, beaten only by 1998, was another year of freak weather and climate chaos, from drought, to flooding, to hurricanes, much of it caused by the collision between society and ecology that is global warming. Global warming is principally produced by adding more carbon dioxide, from burning fossil fuels, such as oil, gas and coal, to the naturally occurring ‘greenhouse effect’. This is where greenhouses gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere trap a portion of the suns’ rays on earth. Other contributory factors include the production of methane in farming, and deforestation, as plants consume carbon dioxide. This article looks at a range of new research on the impact of climate change on the Arctic that has come out in late 2004 and throughout 2005. Related Links: Wikipedia entry on Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Rising Tide Climate Indymedia Wikipedia entry on Global Warming 2005 was the second warmest year on record In November 2004, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a scientific survey commissioned by the eight states with Arctic territories, found that by the summer of 2070 the Arctic might have no ice at all. The icecap has diminished by 15% to 20% in the past 30 years, with the poles heating up at a higher rate than the rest of the globe. (1) Even the EPA, an official U.S. Government body, admits: “Arctic temperatures during the late 20th century appear to have been the warmest in 400 years. Satellite data suggest that the extent of snow cover has declined by 10 percent since the late 1960s. During the 20th century, the annual duration of lake and river ice cover in the mid- and high latitudes of the northern hemisphere declined by about two weeks.” (2) This month, Michel Jarraud, boss of the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organisation said that Arctic sea-ice was melting more than ever before, with the average cover in the key month of September down 20% on the average for 1979-2004. (3) Parts of Alaska are currently experiencing a tourist boom, as visitors rush to see the glaciers while they still can, before they are melted. "This evidence is visual, and it's real. All the glaciers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge are retreating from their most extended positions thousands of years ago, and the only scientific explanation for their retreat is a change in climate.”, commented Matt Nolan of the University of Alaska. (4) Another anomalous phenomenon of the far north today is drowned polar bears. 2005 was the first year scientists documented multiple polar bears drowning off the Alaskan coast. Previously this was too rare to be recorded. Researchers from U.S. Minerals Management Service also observed a change in the bears’ behaviour, while each previous annual survey found them on sea ice, in 2005 they tended to be found swimming at unusually far distances from the shore, or on land. It is typical for polar bears to swim short distances between ice floes, while hunting seals, but with the ice cap shrinking to an unprecedented extent in 2005, the gaps between the ice are getting bigger and bigger and the creatures’ habitat – literally – is disappearing from under them. (5) An earlier Canadian study found that with the ice over Hudson Bay retreating bears were forced into human populated areas in the search for food. (6) This has made something of an impact in the United States, with Greenpeace recently running a T.V. ad campaign, while previously Fox News dismissed the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment on the basis of reports of villagers being plagued by polar bears. This of course being just the sort of product of the removal of the bears’ habitats mentioned in the various surveys. Richard Steiner, a marine-biology professor at the University of Alaska, commented "For anyone who has wondered how global warming and reduced sea ice will affect polar bears, the answer is simple -- they die". The big melt in the frozen north is creating what is called a ‘positive feedback’. In this context this means an effect of global warming which itself goes on to contribute to global warming. In August of 2005 researchers reported that an area of West Siberian permafrost peat bog the size of France and Germany combined was thawing. As it defrosts the peat will release methane – a greenhouse gas – into the atmosphere, creating more global warming and climate chaos. This could be a ‘tipping point’, a situation where relatively small change in temperature produces environmental transformations that create irreversible major changes in temperature. Sergei Kirpotin, of Tomsk State University described the frozen peat thaw as an "ecological landslide that is probably irreversible and is undoubtedly connected to climatic warming". Earlier, in May 2005, scientists found the same process at work in eastern Siberia. (7) The big melt may have profound effects on the climate of Western Europe. This is as we are warmed by the Gulf Stream, hotter waters coming to us from the Caribbean, part of what is known as the Great Ocean Conveyer Belt aka thermohaline circulation. As the Gulf Stream goes north surface water evaporates and the saltier, and hence denser, water left is heavier and is pushed by this, and gravity, to the ocean floor where it forms a giant under-sea river eventually making its way back to the Pacific and making space for warmer waters to push northward. Hence Western Europe is warmer than other places at the same latitude to us. An increase in fresh water, from melting Arctic ice and from Siberian rivers gorged on thawing permafrost, could disrupt this process. (8) This is as fresh water is saltless and hence less dense and heavy. New research suggests that the breakdown of this oceanic pump is more likely than some previously thought. According to Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois “This is a dangerous, human-induced climate change,the shutdown of the thermohaline circulation has been characterized as a high-consequence, low-probability event. Our analysis, including the uncertainties in the problem, indicates it is a high-consequence, high-probability event.” (9) But it is not all bad news. If I might torture indy readers with a few clichés there is a light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel, there is a sliver-lining-to-this-cloud. At least there is for the directors and shareholders of oil corporations. The aforementioned Arctic Climate Impact Assessment also found that: “offshore oil exploration and production are likely to benefit from less extensive and thinner ice." Removal of the ice will allow major resources, previously inaccessible, to be reached and exploited. (10) Statoil, and others, are already engaged in oil exploration in the Barents Sea off Norway’s Arctic coast. (11) Hence long-running sovereignty disputes over Arctic waters, involving the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark, have been given a marked impetus. Now there are important potential profits lying, for the time being, underneath the frozen seas. In August Denmark and Canada both sent warships to Hans Island, an uninhabited rock of no-economic value between Greenland (Danish Territory) and Canada. While Hans Island itself is unimportant it is a matter of establishing precedence. (12) Anyone expecting a solution to global environmental problems within the framework of capitalism should take note of this. The prospect of the exploitation of oil accessible due to climate chaos, and contributing to climate chaos, is a social rather than environmental ‘positive feedback’. References: (1)Global Warming Will Leave Arctic Ice Free (2) Impacts on Polar Regions (3) Polar Bears Living on Thin Ace (4) Visitors rush to glimpse vanishing glaciers (5) Is Global Warming Killing the Polar Bears? (6) Global warming could starve polar bears (7) Warming hits 'tipping point' Scientists warn thawing Siberia may trigger global meltdown (8) The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt – Environmental Literacy Council The Great Ocean Conveyer Belt – United Nations Environment Programme (9)Failing ocean current raises fears of mini ice age Global Warming Could Halt Ocean Circulation Hotter World May Freeze Britain (10) Global Warming May Boost Oil Industry Global Warming Exposes Arctic to Oil, Gas Drilling (11) Norway gives oil firms too much say in Arctic – WWF Localizing new, versus reduced, access to fossil resources No Oil in the Barents Sea (12) Canada's arctic sovereignty claim angers Denmark July 25 Hans Island the tip of iceberg in Arctic claims July 31 Danish navy ship headed for Hans Island August 4 HMCS Fredericton leaves Halifax for Arctic patrol August 18 Canada sends navy to Arctic north 23rd August Canada sends warships to protect northern boundaries August 28 Canadians Uprise August 28


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