The Arctic thaw and the outside world

These changes are posing challenges for the local nomads and herders whose traditional ways of life are coming under increasing pressure, but there are several other reasons why scientists are monitoring environmental changes in the region with so much concern. One is the 'albedo effect' caused by the reflectivity of solar light: when sunlight strikes snow and ice it is bounced back into the atmosphere instead of being absorbed into the earth's surface and then converted to heat.15 So if a white landscape becomes boreal forest, then what was once a solar reflector becomes a heat collector, aggravating the warming of the planet rather than mitigating it. As an American expert at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado explains, 'areas which formerly had ice are now open water, which is dark. These dark areas absorb a lot of the sun's energy, much more than ice; and what happens then is that the oceans start to warm up, and it becomes very difficult for ice to form during the following autumn and winter'.16 In other words, there is a classic vicious circle at work because global warming is melting Arctic ice to create open waters, which then absorb even more of the sun's rays, converting them to heat instead of reflecting them back into the atmosphere.

Scientists are also living in fear of another, very real, scenario. Since the end of the last glacial cycle, more than 120,000 years ago, the Arctic ice has incarcerated the remains of animals and plants, the decomposition of which has created huge quantities of methane that in summer can be seen bubbling to the surface. Over this period, the permafrost has acted as a lid that has kept the methane sealed in, but scientists now fear that the gas could easily be released into the atmosphere as the permafrost thaws. Methane is a greenhouse gas about 20 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and if it escapes on the scale that some scientists think possible then its impact on the world's climate would be devastating. In the summer of 2008, researchers were alarmed to find that some of these deposits were already reaching the surface. Orjan Gustafsson, of Stockholm University, described how in the course of one research trip:

an extensive area of intense methane release was found. At earlier sites we had found elevated levels of dissolved methane. Yesterday, for the first time, we documented a field where the release was so intense that the methane did not have time to dissolve into the seawater but was rising as methane bubbles to the sea surface. These 'methane chimneys' were documented on echo sounder and with seismic [instruments]}7

The great thaw might also spring other surprises on the outside world. Some scientists fear that the preserved carcasses might contain deadly viruses that, after lying dormant for thousands of years, could suddenly return to devastate humanity. In the course of their Arctic travels, experts have certainly been mystified by the primitive life forms (fortunately quite harmless) that they have so far discovered: one British scientist, based at the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, unearthed what he called 'a deep-sea mystery': a simple life form, just a half inch long, that he has been quite unable to classify, from a rock sediment in a fjord at Rijpfjorden, in the Svalbard archipelago.18

But the main cause of concern about the Arctic thaw is its effect on global sea levels. Floating ice, of the sort that surrounds the North Pole, poses no danger because it is already displacing water; like ice cubes in a glass of water, the sea level will remain unchanged when the ice melts. But the melting of the massive ice sheets that cover Greenland would have a catastrophic effect; some of the world's leading experts have repeatedly warned of the 'imminent peril' this eventuality poses and pointed to the 'devastating' rise of sea levels, perhaps as much as several metres every century. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has also predicted that these levels will eventually rise anywhere between 4 inches to 3 feet.

This is not the sole, or even the main, reason why the Arctic has started to arouse the interest of the watching world. Of much more immediate and pressing concern for most governments are new opportunities to exploit the region's vast, untapped natural resources. Over the past decade geological surveys have shown that the Arctic has huge underground reservoirs of oil and natural gas. Now that the ice is melting, and the technology and expertise to undertake deep-water drilling has been developed, these resources are for the first time open to exploitation, and they promise to bestow huge benefits on whichever country can claim them as their own.

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