Nov 24, 2009

The Artic as Extreme evidence of Climate Change

A great Books review in the Financial Times about the drastic changes in the Arctic and how they will definitely change our world and our lives. Even if you personally have no interest in science, it must strike you as peculiar that the north of the Earth is changing so dramatically. It should make you wonder why this is happening and wonder how it could affect your own life.

Sara Wheeler is such a seasoned Arctic traveller that one winter she towed her baby son around Lapland on a sled. In The Magnetic North, her wonderful account of her journeys through the region, she wonders if her children will “talk to their children’s children about the Arctic as my generation speaks of black-and-white television and tinned spaghetti”.

They almost certainly will. It’s no coincidence that four weighty books about the region are being published at once. The old Arctic is dying, and a new, perhaps more habitable one will replace it. These books are not warnings against climate change: it’s too late for that. Rather, taken together, this quartet is at once a requiem for the old Arctic and a fearful welcome to the new one. Glyn Williams’s Arctic Labyrinth and Peter Nichols’s Final Voyage are partial histories of the old, frozen Arctic. Wheeler’s odyssey and Alun Anderson’s After The Ice chart the new, melting Arctic and the incipient “cold rush” for its oil and gas. There are hundreds of billions of dollars buried in those thawing seabeds. As the Arctic defrosts, the region may finally join the rest of civilisation, Anderson suggests, even though he doesn’t like the idea.....

The idea was that if only ships could find an ice-free shortcut through the Arctic, they could get to the riches of Asia much more quickly than by going around South America. The Arctic was the world’s last outpost of fantasy: as it wasn’t properly mapped until well into the 20th century, the belief long persisted that there was an ice-free polar sea, and perhaps people living on the North Pole. The north-west passage was a cold version of the legend of El Dorado.....

With the Arctic melting, the north-west passage is at last becoming reality.....

For now, as Wheeler and Anderson both document, petroleum is the main force creating the new Arctic. Oil’s impact on the region is two-fold: firstly, fossil fuels created the climate change that is defrosting the Arctic. Secondly, the Arctic itself is the scene of much of today’s extraction. “The Arctic already produces about a tenth of the world’s oil and a quarter of its gas,” writes Wheeler, and the thaw will make more sources accessible. The former wilderness is becoming a cold Saudi Arabia. In the new contest between energy companies and the environment, it’s easy to predict the winner......

In After The Ice, Alun Anderson, former editor of New Scientist, has made a heroic effort to understand the science of the region. Parts of his wise book will interest only the thriving new species of Arctic wonks – but Anderson does address what should be the world’s great concern. He notes the forecast by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 “that global mean temperatures would rise by 2.5° to 3°C” by 2100. Parts of the Arctic are expected to warm by that amount each decade, Anderson says. “In Nome, where I grew up,” an Alaskan Inuit tells him, “there was no such thing as grass. I was up in Nome this summer and I saw someone not only with a lawn but mowing the lawn!”

Ice reflects sunlight, and so has kept the Arctic cool. But when the ice melts, it’s replaced by water, which absorbs sunlight. So the Arctic warms, and more ice melts, and the Arctic warms further. Even if, by a miracle, an effective deal to stop climate change emerged from the UN conference in Copenhagen next month, it wouldn’t save the old Arctic. Now it’s a matter of adapting to the new climate.

The Arctic is changing so fast that no scientist can keep up. Until recently experts thought it would take until 2100 for the Arctic to be ice-free. They then moved their forecasts 50 to 80 years forward. Wheeler and Anderson between them have a stab at a decent picture of what the new Arctic might look like. Some species will probably disappear: polar bears and walruses, for instance, need ice to hunt. If a mother walrus has to swim dozens of miles through thawed ocean to find food, she cannot bring enough back to feed her pups. Anderson recounts how researchers in 2006 saw “a group of crying baby walruses far out to sea off the Alaskan coast. All were too young to survive on their own and probably drowned.”

On the other hand, a warming Arctic may be “a more productive, if very different, sea”, Anderson notes. Losers such as polar bears will presumably give way to winners better suited to temperate waters: killer whales, tourists, Arctic wonks and fishermen catching the fish who will feast on the soon-to-be profuse plankton.

But what excites governments and energy companies is a new vision of El Dorado: the Arctic’s oil and gas. The scramble for the Arctic has already begun. In 2007 the Russians planted their flag on the seabed at the North Pole, though that particular spot is likely to go to Denmark.

For better or worse, humans are probably about to tame the Arctic at last. We have heated it to room temperature, and now we’re moving in. That may be further bad news for the region’s long-suffering residents, the Inuit. Wheeler and Anderson show how contact with peoples from the warmer world has left many of them drunk, drugged, obese, poor and addled with our pollutants.

Anderson tends to embrace the Inuit as noble savages whom we should protect from modernity. Fewer than 200,000 of them survive in the entire Arctic circle. Today Inuit groups are keen to have their share of the forthcoming oil wealth. Americans and Britons no longer live like their ancestors, and do not seem desperate to turn back into hungry, rural labourers without mobile phones, so it’s presumptuous to want to keep the Inuit frozen in time.

The new Arctic may eventually kill us all, as the melting ice raises the planet’s sea levels, and as the melting permafrost releases fantastic quantities of methane into the atmosphere. For an intermediate period, though, the Arctic may become habitable. You probably don’t want to experience climate change in Bangladesh or the Nile Delta, and you won’t be able to on Tuvalu as the islands sink into the Pacific ocean. However, though Anderson fears climate change, he does imply that the Arctic itself might temporarily be a net winner from a warmer era. The region could benefit from climate change in the way that certain upwardly mobile Britons in the 1940s “had a good war”. Sara Wheeler’s grandchildren may spend holiday weekends in booming Arctic metropolises just as our generation pops over to Barcelona. After them, the deluge.

text of the above article is from:

The final meltdown

By Simon Kuper

Published: November 13 2009 23:32

Simon Kuper is an FT writer based in Paris

1 comment:

  1. An alarming truth that we should not neglect. Let's act before it's too late and not as if there will always be tomorrow.