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A new look at the effects of climate change on the Arctic

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Posted: Saturday, February 23, 2013 11:45 pm

FAIRBANKS — From March 1, 2007, to that same date the following year, nations from around the world and particularly the North came together for what was the third International Polar Year (IPY). As with the case in the two previous IPYs (the first in the 1870s and the second during the 1930s), it was a gathering of scientists and researchers who teamed up to learn more about the planet’s northern and southern extremes.

This time, however, there was an added sense of urgency. Climate change, a global phenomenon, has hit the poles hard, with average temperatures rising much faster than elsewhere and noticeable stresses and shifts occurring in the flora and fauna of both the Arctic and the Antarctic.

“The State of the Poles: Climate Lessons from the International Polar Year” presents many of the findings that resulted from that year in an understandable fashion for those with limited scientific backgrounds. With clear language, plenty of illustrations, and easy-to-comprehend graphs, the book introduces readers to what is known, what is in dispute, and what remains beyond scientific grasp.

Science journalist Christian Bjørnæs, and biologist and climate researcher Pål Prestrud, both of Norway, have assembled a book that includes brief but informative chapters on topics ranging from sea and glacial ice to ocean acidification, and permafrost to air quality, as well as living conditions for both animals and humans. And while the title implies that the book covers both poles, the majority of the information here concerns the Arctic, where the climatic changes have been the most pronounced.

The opening chapter examines the dramatic reduction in sea ice over the Arctic Ocean, which hit its lowest level ever (until 2012, that is) during the IPY. The reasons for the rapid decline are still being debated, with some researchers naming atmospheric conditions the primary cause and others believing that unusually warm incoming tides are the culprit. Either way, there is now a feedback loop in effect; as ice melts and becomes water, it warms additional ice, and the process speeds itself along. Seasonal ice growth has remained fairly strong, but that ice routinely melts during summer. The larger concern is multi-year ice, which is quickly vanishing.

The shifts in ocean conditions are impacting the food web. Algae and phytoplankton that have evolved to bloom at certain times are now blooming sooner, impacting the fish that feed on them and have co-evolved to time their arrival and reproduce in rhythm to these brief blooming seasons. With bottom feeders and fish stocks stressed by these changes, larger sea mammals like seals, walruses, and whales that feed on them are also feeling the pressure. And, as has been widely reported, the polar bears that sit atop the food web are getting clobbered. The ice that they hunt on is melting under their feet while the seals they favor are thinning out. Increased nutritional stress is the name of the game in the emerging arctic.

Oceans absorb tremendous amounts of the CO2 that humans are emitting, helping to keep runaway global warming in check, but this doesn’t come without cost. The authors explain how increasing amounts of the gas in sea water reduces its natural pH balance, leading to a growing problem of acidification. This is taking a toll on shellfish in particular, placing further stress on the food web.

Another problem is rising seal levels owing to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Neither ice sheet behavior nor glacial calving are fully understood, and therefore predicting how these storehouses of frozen freshwater will behave as greenhouse gasses increase is problematic. Without knowing for sure how much will melt, predicting how high the oceans will rise in coming decades is a bit of a crap shot.

It is also not always easy to tease out just what roles climate change and natural cycles play in such major events as the 2010 collapse of the ice sheet extending from the Petermann Glacier in Greenland. Odds are the two factors conspired to bring it about, but to what extent each drove it is heavily debated.

Further inland, the permafrost that underlies much of the North is melting. In addition to the nightmares this is causing for construction and industry, the thawing of permafrost threatens to release huge amounts of the key greenhouse gasses CO2 and methane that it harbors. In worst case scenarios it could become a much greater gas source than humans, sending global warming into overdrive. Most researchers, however, feel it won’t be quite that severe.

Lots of new plants are now colonizing the Arctic, and the increased biomass does help absorb CO2. But it also leads to the loss of native species and animals. It also means increasing wildfires, creating soot that sometimes cools and sometimes warms the atmosphere. Precipitation, wind, snowfall, ground cover and more can similarly confuse the issue. As the authors explain, “We don’t know exactly how all this will add up, and at present a coupled climate model that takes into account these different driving forces does not exist.”

Those looking for quick fodder to feed the political dispute that has — quite needlessly — sprung up around what is happening to our world won’t find what they’re looking for here; this book is neither apocalyptic in tone, nor does it deny the role humans are playing in the planetary changes. Those seeking a sober-minded, well balanced assessment of what is transpiring, however, will gain a solid picture of what has already happened as well as some ideas of what might lie ahead. But like all good science writing, the book ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

“The State of the Poles: Climate Lessons from the International Polar Year”

Christian Bjørnæs & Pål Prestrud

Unipub/Akademika Publishing

140 pages



Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

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