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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Arctic Ice Hole

Air Date: Week of

A tourist group aboard an icebreaker ship didn’t need to break much ice to reach the North Pole last month. Host Steve Curwood talks with Harvard University oceanographer James McCarthy, a leader of the tour, about the open water witnessed on the trip and the attention it focused on climate change in the Arctic.


CURWOOD: The recent discovery of open water, not solid ice, at the North Pole, galvanized much talk about global warming. That specific observation isn't necessarily a reflection of climate change. After all, it's normal for as much as ten percent of the Arctic region to be ice-free during the summer months. But there is plenty of evidence that the Arctic is feeling the effects of climate change. Winter temperatures in the far north have warmed 11 degrees over the past 30 years, and on the whole Arctic ice is only about half as thick now as it was several decades ago. One of the scientists who led the tourist trip to the North Pole in August is James McCarthy, an oceanographer at Harvard University. He reports that over the course of the expedition north, they encountered an unexpected amount of open water.

McCARTHY: Well, as we began our lecturing, talking about ice, talking about icebreakers, all gave our travelers the expectation that we would be seeing serious ice. So we were day to day, the lecturers, as we looked out, telling the people to whom we were lecturing "well, not yet." We had yet to encounter really serious ice. When we arrived at the pole, I think it was fair to say that not only were the lecturers surprised, astonished, that in fact the people traveling with us had come to believe this was really unusual. And the lecturers, while we were on the bridge at the pole, thought for a moment that were we to put a small boat in the water and put all the lecturers on it, paddling around, perhaps, at the geographic North Pole, it might be a powerful image, that were our colleagues and others to see this, would register immediately as a very unusual situation.

CURWOOD: This hole in the pole was immediately picked up by the media as the latest sign of climate change. Why do you think people latched onto your observations and this water at the North Pole. Why did this become a global news event?

McCARTHY: It is more of a global news event than we thought it would be. And in part I think it is that image, the North Pole without ice. The picture in the New York Times. Had the picture not been there, I wonder if it would have become as widely known as it is. In fact, the picture led people to get a mistaken notion of the story. They saw the picture and thought that the only place we saw with open water was the North Pole. I know that from letters and e-mail that has been rolling in since, without reading the story and realizing that that was simply a dramatic punctuation of the endpoint of our journey. The interesting reaction that's come from some of the ice scientists, the people who spend their life studying the extent of sea ice and how it changes annually and interannually, they've been trying to get this story out. They've been trying to tell a story over the last couple of years in scientific publications about how the ice is thinning. How the annual extent of sea ice is shrinking. And that, for reasons that nobody could quite explain, our anecdotal observations have suddenly captured the attention of the public.

CURWOOD: What should the public understand about climate change based on your observations? What does this experience, your observations, what does it show and what doesn't it show?

McCARTHY: You cannot in any definitive way, and again I emphasize that our observations are limited to a two-week period to a narrow sector of the Arctic, you cannot in any definitive way say that this can be attributed to a larger pattern of climate change. But it's consistent with what you would expect. And forecasts have been made, extrapolating from the recent trends, which would indicate a dramatic loss of ice in the Arctic over the next few to several decades. This is consistent with that. So it may be an early sign of the processes which are known to occur, for which trends would lead us to expect this sort of change. It's perhaps happening more quickly, or in a particular region of the Arctic at this time, faster than had been expected.

CURWOOD: Some scientists point out that other factors, such as wind or waves, affect ice formation in the Arctic, along with temperature. And that what you saw, water at the North Pole, is just a function of this natural variation.

McCARTHY: Well, it could be, because all of those factors do influence not only the rate at which ice is formed, but the rate at which it might melt and the rate at which it might be swept out of the Arctic. But what we know is that there is no evidence of anything of this sort showing up earlier. Something that is not apparent from -- you take the 15 or so trips that someone like Robert Headland from Cambridge University has been onto the pole over the last decade. It's not something that has been evident in the satellite record for two decades. It is entirely conceivable that this is a very anomalous year. But certainly, if you look to the polar exploration literature, when people were attempting to cross the ice to get to the North Pole, nothing of this sort was ever encountered. It's easier to envision the time when navigation through the polar regions will be possible without the sort of vessels that we have today, the serious icebreaking ships.

CURWOOD: So the Northwest Passage can become a reality?

McCARTHY: Yes. There have been news articles in the last month which have suggested that that's a possibility, predating our observations.

CURWOOD: James McCarthy is Alexander Agassiz Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. Thank you, sir.

McCARTHY: Thank you, Steve.



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