The Arctic Thaw

In the spring of 1993, Inuits began to notice big changes in the formation of the winter sea ice near their homes in the Alaskan village of Shishmaref, a few miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula. Until the spring thaw set in, the men had always made regular trips by snowmobile to hunt for seals, and until the mid-1980s they had always been able to drive a long way onto the ice to find their prey. But this year it was simply too dangerous to even walk out onto the frozen sea because the ice was thawing much earlier than ever before. The hunters therefore decided to start using boats instead. 'We just thought it's warming up a little bit', as one of the Inuit men told an American reporter. 'It was good at the start - warmer winters, you know - but now everything is going so fast.'1

At the same, time foreign visitors to the region also noticed similar changes, discovering a very different Arctic landscape from the one they had expected to find. In the late summer of 1997 a group of American geophysicists travelled to the Arctic to investigate reports that the ice was disappearing. One earlier mission, in 1975, had described an ice floe with an average thickness of nine feet and the geophysicists found, 22 years later, that it barely reached 6 feet in exactly the same place. One of the scientists on board recalled their reaction: 'we imagined calling the sponsors at the National Science Foundation and saying, "well, we can't find any ice".'2

The indigenous people of other Arctic regions were also starting to notice that something was radically transforming the traditional landscapes where their forebears had lived and worked for thousands of years. In the late 1990s, a number of houses and buildings in remote parts of Alaska had lost their upright shape and instead started to lean over at peculiar, and sometimes very dangerous, angles. Some of them were starting to slump downwards, while the windows and doors of other buildings were gradually sinking closer to the ground.

It wasn't long before scientists worked out what was happening. Much of the Arctic landscape is permafrost (ground that is frozen all year round). In recent years the permafrost's deep underground layers of ice have started to melt, and when the ice turns to water, anything built on the ice is liable to topple and fall.

This underground thawing is having other effects too, such as the increasing frequency of landslides in places where ice is frozen into bedrock but then begins to melt. Ellesmere Island in Canada has witnessed a very significant increase in both the number and severity of these landslides, known to geologists as 'detachment events' because the 'active layer', the layer between the underground permafrost and the surface soil that thaws in the summer months, becomes detached from the permafrost beneath and slides off. This has removed whole swathes of surface soil, sometimes covering areas hundreds of yards across but just a foot or so deep, from the land. Similar things have been happening in other parts of the world, not just the Arctic. During the heat wave that affected much of Western Europe in the summer of 2003, a huge segment of the Matterhorn broke off the mountain slope, blocking a key route used by Alpine climbers and leaving a group of them stranded.

Since the late 1990s, experts have made considerable efforts to record the rate at which this permafrost is melting. Experts at the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost have drilled boreholes in carefully chosen spots to make accurate records and found clear indications of a warming trend throughout the permafrost zone. In particular, findings at Norway's Svalbard archipelago, in the far north west of the Barents Sea, show that ground temperatures have risen four times faster than they did in the previous century. 'What took a century to be achieved in the twentieth century will be achieved in twenty-five years in the twenty-first century, if this trend continues', as one of the leading geologists involved in the project pointed out.3

The melting permafrost is having one other unmistakable impact on the Arctic tundra: the wilderness where the soil is too cold for trees to take root. In recent years, the tundra has started to retreat considerably because as the temperature rises and the permafrost melts, trees are springing up, and thick forests, known as taiga, are proliferating northwards. 'The effects of climate change in Alaska will be among the most visible in the world', says Professor Dominique Bachelet of Oregon State University. 'The tundra has no place else to go, and it will largely disappear from the Alaskan landscape, along with the related plant, animal and even human ecosystems that are based upon it'.4

Some of the most up-to-date research on the retreat of the tundra has been undertaken along the eastern slopes of Siberia's northern Ural Mountains. In particular, a number of leading international ecologists have shown how larches and, further south, conifers, firs and pines are now thriving in this region, even though no living tree has grown there for thousands of years.5 Scientists report that it is only in the course of the past century that leading edges of conifer forests began creeping some 50-100 feet up the mountains, and in some places these forests have succeeded in completely overrunning tundra. Some scientists estimate that between one-half and two-thirds of the tundra could be completely covered by forest by the end of the twenty-first century.

Research into the state of the Arctic's waters has been going on for somewhat longer. Scientists first began to monitor sea ice in the Arctic Ocean in the late 1970s, when it was judged to be melting at a rate of around 6.5 per cent each decade, but amidst growing concern they stepped up their efforts in the late 1990s. Since then, research into the melting of Arctic ice has been extensive, detailed and thorough, leaving little doubt about the sheer scale and speed with which this transformation is happening.

Almost every year new research is published that seems more pessimistic and shocking than the last. In the autumn of 2002, a NASA satellite study caused a stir because it showed that permanent ice cover was vanishing at roughly three times the rate that scientists had previously thought. This survey was carried out using data that was compiled over more than two decades from 1978 to 2000, and in this time about half a million square miles of supposedly permanent ice had completely disappeared. Not only that, but the rate at which it was disappearing seemed to be accelerating fast. As a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland, and the chief author of the study, has put it, 'this year we had the least amount of permanent ice cover ever observed'.6

Since then, scientific warnings have become even more dire. In 2005, surveys estimated that there was less ice in the Arctic Ocean than at any previous time, and a year later scientists at the United States National Snow and Ice Data Center argued that earlier predictions would prove wildly off the mark. Using an extensive amount of data supplied by American and Canadian satellites, they even claimed that the entire Arctic Ocean would be virtually ice-free by the year 2060 and that the rate at which the ice was melting had now reached 8.6 per cent - equivalent to 23.3 million square miles - every year. 'I'm not terribly optimistic about the future of the ice', said Mark

Serreze, a research professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. 'Although it would come as no surprise to see some recovery of the sea ice in the next few years - such fluctuations are part of natural variability - the long-term trend seems increasingly clear'.7

The sheer speed with which the frozen seas are melting is taking everyone by surprise, and numerous experts argue that the 'official' figure promulgated by the United Nation's climate panel in 2007 drastically understates the sheer gravity of the crisis. Speaking at a seminar for scientists and politicians that was held in the Norwegian town of Ny-Alesund, the world's most northerly permanent settlement, lying just 750 miles from the North Pole, and a centre of international scientific research into the region, Norway's environment minister, Helen Bjoernoy, did not mince her words. Not only are 'reductions of snow and ice happening at an alarming rate', she told her audience, but 'this acceleration may be faster than predicted' by a UN climate panel that had reported its findings earlier in the year. Other experts share her pessimism. Christopher Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, takes the view that 'there may well be an ice-free Arctic by the middle of the century'.8

In the spring of 2009, the British explorer Pen Hadow also focused the attention of the world on the region. Hadow was leading the Catlin Arctic Survey, a four-man trek to the North Pole that set out in early March to get a better idea of the shrinking ice cap and obtain much more specific data than satellites could provide. Before long Hadow discovered that most of his ice samples were less than three feet thick, suggesting that the older, thicker ice had either floated away or, more likely, simply melted. He made his findings just as NASA was issuing more warnings that sea-ice cover over the Arctic had reached a new low point and that the region could experience an ice-free summer as early as 2013.9

Everyone agrees that the Arctic is melting fast, although there is marginally more disagreement about exactly why. A number of scientists take the view that the contemporary world is experiencing a natural environmental cycle, no different from the many other changes - sometimes dramatic and profound - that have previously affected the planet. It is well known that the world's climate has changed constantly over the past few millions of years and conditions in the Arctic have changed at least as much as elsewhere. Half a million years ago the southern tip of Greenland, which is now ice-capped, was covered with thriving boreal forest that was full of spruce, pine, alder, and yew. And 4,000-8,000 years ago, willows, birches and roses were all thriving on the northern tip of Norway's

Svalbard archipelago, an area that is now covered with ice. At the beginning of the twentieth century, some parts of the Russian Arctic were warmer than they are today, and one section of the Northern Sea Route, which runs along its coast from Murmansk as far as the Bering Sea, was completely ice-free. Some scientists have argued in academic journals that record levels of melting in recent summers need to be seen from this long-term perspective because they are the result not so much of man-made global warming, but more of a cyclical north-south shift in the Arctic's atmosphere.

But while climatic conditions over the past 10,000 years have been unusually stable, creating a temperature range that has been ideal for human life, most scientists agree that the changes are the effect of man-made carbon dioxide emissions. According to the scientists and other experts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has published its findings in 2001 and 2007, there is a less than 10 per cent chance that the current warming trend is the result of natural variations in the climate.

The first proper research into the environmental impact of man-made carbon dioxide emissions was undertaken in the late 1970s, when President Carter commissioned a group of scientists to further investigate some initial findings. From its base in Massachusetts, the 'Charney Panel', as it became known, undertook some rigorous research and reached alarming conclusions. 'If carbon dioxide continues to increase', they argued, 'the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible.' And if carbon dioxide emissions doubled from the level they had reached in the pre-industrial age, they continued, then the global temperature would rise by between 2 and 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit, perhaps even within 'several decades'.

Thirty years on, the warnings of the Charney Panel seem prophetic. The rate at which carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere has increased every year - it now stands at around seven billion tons - and the earth's temperature has increased more or less in line with the predictions originally made by the American scientists. Since 1990, almost every subsequent year has been hotter than the last, breaking new records and leaving scientists struggling to work out the implications for the world's environment. In early 2009, a leading expert, Professor Chris Field, even warned that both carbon dioxide emissions and the world's future temperatures had been dramatically underestimated and would be 'beyond anything' that had been predicted.

In the Arctic, as elsewhere, global warming is having an effect that is hugely complex and far-reaching. Inevitably, some people are benefiting, while many more are losing out. And like the Alaskan Inuit, who started to use boats to cut through the slushy ice, almost everyone - foreign powers as well as the region's indigenous peoples - has to adapt to the fast changing landscape.

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