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Cold Reality in the High Arctic

North of Greenland, climate apocalypse glimpsed.

By Daniel Wood, 12 Apr 2007, TheTyee.ca

Ship in Arctic - Alexandra Fjord

Alexandra Fjord.

What rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
The Second Coming
-- W.B. Yeats

Alexandra Fjord, Ellesmere Island: There are places one can stand and see, with the guidance of a thoughtful observer, the shape of the future.

To my left on this warm July day stands 51-year-old Greg Henry, tundra ecologist, associate professor of geography at the University of British Columbia, and one of Canada's leading experts on the effects of global warming in the High Arctic. To his right as he looks out from this low bluff on Ellesmere Island's Alexandra Fjord pack ice chokes the mouth of the ocean inlet and stretches seemingly unbroken all the way to the mountains of northern Greenland, 60 kilometres distant. Scores of icebergs, some the size of stadiums, some a thousand times bigger, stud the panorama.

At his back as Henry talks, Twin Glacier issues a river of meltwater that crosses the tidal flats below the bluff in an unravelling skein of silver.

For the past 27 years, Henry has come to this long-abandoned RCMP post to utilize the six wood-framed houses here as the site for an ongoing study on climate change. He and his team of grad students are part of the 11-nation International Tundra Experiment that links every arctic country in a series of identical studies, and aims at putting precise figures on what's happening climate-wise around the Arctic Ocean.

The news is not just bad. It indicates a worldwide catastrophe is at hand.

'We're quite a species'

Standing in a T-shirt 1200 kilometres south of the North Pole, Henry tells me that every year is warmer than the last. He didn't use to wear a T-shirt here ever. And it's the same elsewhere: Siberia, Norway, Alaska. The temperatures are climbing, he tells me, faster than has ever occurred in known geologic history. His data shows an average 6 C increase in winter temperatures at Alexandra Fjord since 1970, and a 1 degree per decade summertime increase.

The ocean is warming, too. The winter ice is melting earlier each year. More ominously, these rates are accelerating. And turning around, looking south past his splay of outdoor scientific apparatus that monitor the changes in the air and muskeg-covered delta below Twin Glacier, Henry tells me the glacier has retreated 300 metres since first photographed in 1959. It's now moving backward six metres every year.

"So," I say, "the Arctic's a sort of 'mine canary' of global warming?"

Henry laughs ironically. "Mine canary! It was the mine canary. What we thought was happening 25 years ago is happening. The mine canary's dead. We're into full-fledged climate change. We're quite a species. We've altered the planet's climate in two or three generations. It's not going to stop. It's going to get worse and worse."

I walk with my companions then toward Twin Glacier, to glimpse what global warming looks like first hand. Every hummock in the muskeg is a moss-covered rock or frost boil; every hollow a pit of indeterminate depth. Like a man traversing thin ice, I await the moment I fall.

Set amid this vast, runoff-saturated erosional delta below the glacier are Henry's scientific experiments. Some measure changes in soil and air temperature; some are electronically-monitored, open-topped, mini greenhouses, meant to accelerate temperatures beyond even current rates.

Their purpose is to answer the twin questions. What's happening now? And what -- speaking allegorically -- is slouching toward Bethlehem?

Rapid retreat

Not surprisingly, as the air temperature climbs each year at Alexandra Fjord, Henry knows the soil is warming. The permafrost, located just 30 centimetres below the ground's surface, is rapidly melting, too. The hardy polar plants now grow bigger, flower earlier, and produce more seeds. The grassy plants get woodier. New species move in. More bees come. There's more forage for the island's musk ox, too.

But Henry is also aware this polar warming is, to most arctic animals, a mixed blessing.

A few kilometres to the northwest in Sverdrup Pass, these same musk ox are dying each autumn in unprecedented ice storms -- when, in previous years, there would be normal November blizzards. These same ice storms, Henry also knows, are killing off the island's Peary caribou and lemmings as well. The estimates vary, but with the current climb in temperatures worldwide, it's generally accepted today that in the coming century at least 10 per cent of the Earth's animal species will go extinct. For animals adapted to cold climates, things are more dire: in a warming world, there's no place to flee.

I sit for an hour amid the outwash rubble of the western lobe of Twin Glacier, reading from the land the evidence of global warming left in the glacier's retreat.

Under the mid-summer sun, creeks flow across the glacier's celadon-coloured surface, then cascade off its tongue in a Niagara of waterfalls.

A distinct, lifeless scour-zone high on the adjacent mountain slope marks the level the glacier's surface has dropped vertically in the past few decades. It's probably 100 metres above where I sit.

And before me lies a couple of hundred metres of glacial debris and mud, cut by a dozen milky streams.

From the old 1959 photo in Henry's oceanside laboratory, I gauge my current 2006 vantage point was under 50 metres of ice a half-century ago. All that ice... gone. All that water, and all the water from the myriad other melting glaciers that surround me -- both nearby along Alexandra Fjord, and further distant along the coasts of Ellesmere Island and northern Greenland -- all flowing into the sea.

Climate over a half century

In preparation for my travels into the High Arctic to trace the consequences of global warming, I interviewed Martin Sharp, chairman of the University of Alberta's Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department. He has spent 16 years on Ellesmere, Devon, and Axel Heiberg islands investigating the movements of Canada's polar glaciers. He and his predecessors now have a continuous 47-year record of what's been happening in the far north. Since the first aerial photographs in 1959, the total amount of ice lost from the land in northernmost Canada (not the floating Arctic Ocean sea ice) is a staggering 3000 square kilometres.

Three-fourths of all the major outlet glaciers -- the big ones that reach the ocean -- are, Sharp tells me, in retreat. Some are moving backward at a rate of one kilometre a year. Many smaller arctic glaciers are gone entirely. In Greenland, the news is far, far worse. There, many glaciers are retreating at a rate of 10 to 15 kilometres a year. Others are calving icebergs -- some the size of Vancouver -- into Kane Basin, where they gradually drift southward into Davis Strait and the North Atlantic.

Sharp admits that accurately factoring in all the elements that affect global warming is tricky. Modelling the future based on the Earth's natural variables, on meteorological data, on projected carbon dioxide emissions, on the effect of solar radiation on sea ice, cloud cover, and glaciers demands, he's the first to admit, a certain level of caution. But based on past research and current trends, Sharp believes that a 1 C temperature increase each decade -- precisely what Henry is now finding at Alexandra Fjord -- is quite possible. That would make the High Arctic 10 C warmer by 2100.

Were this to happen, says Sharp, "All the ice caps will melt."

Sharp hears, I can tell, what he's saying, and tries to put a scientific asterisk to his views. "Look. As a scientist, it's unwise to predict what will happen. But it's also unwise to predict it couldn't happen." When pushed, however, he allows that a lot of the world's ice caps will probably soon melt, and that a century from now the oceans will have risen one-half to one metre. This rise, I know, would be a catastrophe for hundreds of millions of coastal people worldwide. It is also the most conservative prediction I hear.

'Like lemmings'

John England, also a professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta, fell in love with the "brutal beauty" of Canada's polar islands decades ago, and now, after 42 years studying the Arctic, is one of the country's leading authorities on deglaciation, post-glacial land rebound, and polar sea level change. He tells me in an interview prior to my heading to Ellesmere that during his northern expeditions, he sees increasing evidence of impending calamity.

England believes that most scientists have, out of a natural caution, underestimated the global dangers ahead. "The sea ice will be GONE," he says, speaking of the Arctic Ocean, "by the end of this century. That's radical. That's HUGE! Once you remove the ice, you remove the solar reflectivity. The darker ocean water absorbs the sun's heat. As the ice goes, the Arctic warms up even faster. And that's not all: the permafrost is melting. It's melting fast! That's releasing a lot of methane into the atmosphere. You have all this carbon dioxide gas and moisture in the air from evaporation... it means more clouds. That warms things even more."

On the phone, I can hear England take a deep breath of frustration. "This is an anthropogenic event," he continues. "We humans have done it. We're like lemmings. We don't want to admit we're responsible. We're throwing ourselves off a cliff! But the fact is... lemmings don't throw themselves off cliffs. They're not that stupid!"

The anecdotal evidence -- and ultimate consequence -- of Arctic warming varies from the calamitous to the genuinely apocalyptic. Here are some facts:

  • The year 2005 was announced as the warmest on record in the Arctic, only to be surpassed by a warmer 2006. Across the Ellesmere region, temperatures are averaging 6 C higher than 30 years ago. (In the western Arctic, it's now averaging 8 C warmer than in the 70s.) In Iqaluit on Baffin Island, where it's normally -25 C in February, in February 2006 it rained.
  • The normal 1980s sea ice cover in July on the Arctic Ocean was 10.1 million square kilometres. In July 2006, sea ice cover was 8.7 million square kilometres -- a loss of sea ice as large as the area of Peru. All current projections conclude that permanent summer sea ice will be gone from the Arctic Ocean by 2100; pessimists say it will be gone by 2030.
  • Greenland shed its glacial ice 2.5 times faster in 2006 as it did in 2004. Forecasts vary, but were the Greenland ice to disappear entirely, ocean levels would rise seven metres.
  • Predictions are that levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere will double -- from today's figures -- by 2050. This will be the result of both human energy consumption and the melting of methane-bearing permafrost. Worldwide, carbon dioxide levels are now already higher than at any time in the past 325,000 years.
  • One-third of the world's croplands and 1.5 billion coastal-dwelling people will be adversely affected -- the land inundated -- in the next century if the ocean were to rise, as many predict, three or four metres.

No more glaciers

Greg Henry stands not far from the Canadian flag that marks the country's claim to Ellesmere, and which serves as a wind cone for the Twin Otter that's due to arrive and carry him and his field crew south to Resolute. Nearby on the fjord's tidal flats, stranded icebergs regularly collapse beneath the circling, mid-summer sun. Offshore, the big ones, launched from the glaciers of nearby Greenland, drift south toward Atlantic annihilation.

"All the world's glaciers are melting. The Alps. The Rockies. Here," Henry tells me, with a gesture toward Greenland. "Each year's warmer than the last. My data shows it'll be 10 C warmer here by the next century. And that's being conservative. It could be 10… 12… 15 degrees warmer by then. It's now more a study of the rapidity of change than change. Ocean levels will rise, I believe, about three metres by then."

Henry shakes his head and stares out. We are, I realize, looking at the evidence of what's coming -- the rough beast of the future -- right in the face. "We can't do anything," he says in resignation. "It would involve sacrifices. It would cause a lot of people a lot of pain. We're drunk on oil. We're addicted to oil. The world's economy is based on cheap fuel. We can't get off the fix."

I listen. This is, after all, one of Canada's leading authorities on global warming.

"Two hundred years from now we'll see significant changes in the world's coastlines. Whole cities, whole regions of the world will go underwater," he says prophetically. And he begins listing place names. Sections of Boston. Of New York City. Of Miami. He mentally turns the corner into the Caribbean and smiles. All of New Orleans. Then he begins jumping continents. Shanghai. London. Sydney. Mumbai. The list is long. He goes on and on. Then he starts on the countries that will go underwater. Holland. The Maldive Islands. Large areas of Bangladesh. The Mekong delta. Coastal China.

I begin laughing at this macabre litany. It is too outrageous, too terrible. And given humankind's well-observed proclivity to ignore signs of impending trouble, too true. "It'll be New Orleans times a thousand," he says. "One and a half billion people will need to move." He looks at me. He understands the laughter. It's what you do when words fail and you find yourself facing the abyss.

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