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

Arctic Ice

Air Date: Week of

Producer Bob Carty travels to Canada’s western Arctic and reports on how warming temperatures and thinning ice in that region could alter weather patterns and effect life for people well south of the polar belt.


CURWOOD: We turn now to the western Arctic, which has become one of the planet's hot spots, a place where temperatures are going up faster than anywhere else. Rising arctic temperatures are having dramatic effects on the plants, animals and people who live there. But climate change in the north is not a distant problem. The melting of permafrost could speed up the production of greenhouse gases. And the loss of Arctic ice could create a feedback loop and alter global ocean currents, with serious weather implications for people in the south. Bob Carty reports. (ocean waves and wind)

CARTY: On the edge of the Arctic Ocean there is a tiny village that calls itself "the top of the world." This is Tuktoyaktuk - the last human habitation on the mainland of Canada. You can't get here by road. The community is surrounded on one side by millions of acres of treeless tundra and on the other by a sea that's frozen over for more than half the year. Looking out over the vastness of ocean and tundra you can't help but wonder how a place so isolated and remote could deeply change the lives of people in the south. But it can. And one reason is what climate change is doing to the ground under foot.

(Door opens in shed)

KLINGENBERG: We're at the community ice house freezer. It just looks like a small shack, warehouse. CARTY: Charles Klingenberg is the land and development officer for the hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk. And today he's showing off one of the village's prized facilities.

(Opening lid)

KLINGENBERG: I just opened a lid, lifted the lid up and it's about 4 feet by 4 feet and looks like a mine shaft and it goes down 30 feet. Here in the Arctic here, Tuk region anyway, that's what we sit on, maybe we have one to two feet of topsoil and beneath it is usually comprised of straight permafrost. And it goes down I'm not too sure how far.

CARTY: Then, let's go. (stepping on ladder)

KLINGENBERG: OK. When you're coming down, you should be careful because ice can build up on the ladders and it can get slippery.

HINES: Once you get below the active layer, which is the surface layer of the soil that thaws every year, it can be permanently frozen. And most permafrost we know in the north has been frozen for a long period of time. And it can be really thick, sometimes even over a thousand meters thick.

CARTY: Mark Hines is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. He explains that the permafrost Charles and I are climbing down into is made up of a lot of different stuff... there's ice and rocks and soil and lots of very old vegetation. At the top of the ladder, it's soft and mushy, but from three feet down, it's frozen as hard as rock.


CARTY: When plants grow here in the Arctic, they absorb carbon from the air. But when they die they don't decay like plants in the south because they are frozen so much of the year. Eventually all that dead plant matter becomes part of the permafrost. And that makes Arctic tundra, at least until now, an important carbon sink. In fact, Arctic tundra contains one-third of the earth's stored soil carbon. Mark Hines:

HINES: It is one of largest carbon storage sites on earth. And so as you have some warming in the north, which is certainly occurring now, this active layer at the top that's thawed will get deeper and deeper over time. And once that material is thawed it's ability to decompose is increased drastically and that's what we're worried about. We have the potential for putting carbon back into atmosphere at a rate that's considerably larger than in the past. We now go from a sink to a source for carbon..

KLINGENBERG: Ok. We just came down a 30 foot ladder and we're standing at the bottom of the ladder. There's three separate tunnels, each hallway has about 10 to 15 rooms. It's just a community freezer where people can store meat and fish and everything else that needs to be frozen.

CARTY: So this is very efficient.

KLINGENBERG: Yes, it doesn't cost nothing to operate.

CARTY: Permafrost is a good thing?

KLINGENBERG: Here, yes. (laugh)

CARTY: But when it comes to greenhouse gases, permafrost is now a bad thing. Arctic tundra is releasing more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. According to a US government study, it's not a huge amount -- perhaps the equivalent of 3% of all the carbon emitted from fossil fuel burning. But that percentage could increase. If temperatures rise, more tundra will melt, releasing more carbon dioxide, which then warms the earth more, causing more tundra to melt. A vicious cycle. And carbon dioxide isn't the only greenhouse gas that worries biologist Mark Hines.

HINES: If the climate change results in warming as well as more wetness, then we're going to have a perfect environment for producing methane gas.

CARTY : And why is that important in terms of greenhouse effect?

HINES: Well the methane gas is a very strong greenhouse gas. It's about 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and that's due to its increased ability to absorb radiation that's leaving the earth heading back to space. So that would then increase the temperature of the atmosphere even more rapidly than you might expect simply with CO2 alone. CARTY : Is this just a regional impact, or is it wider?

HINES: It's really a global impact. And that's primarily because methane and carbon dioxide are relatively long-lived gases in the atmosphere. And so if the north is the source of the methane for example, that methane will stay in the atmosphere long enough to literally be transported almost globally. So that anything that happens in the north in terms of methane and carbon dioxide is going to have an effect on the rest of the earth simply by these gases moving to the rest of the earth. (door closed and wind)

CARTY: Back on the surface Charles Klingenberg locks the door to Tuktoyaktuk's ice house. At 30 feet deep, this permafrost freezer is not in any imminent danger. But climate changes can occur surprisingly quickly. Look at what has happened to sea ice in front of Tuktoyaktuk. Sixty years ago a Canadian ice-breaker passed by here. It was trying to make a summer voyage from Pacific to Atlantic through the Northwest Passage of the Arctic Ocean. The ship was called the St. Roch.

BURTON: In 1940 they were ordered through the Northwest passage as part of a wartime effort. The voyage was to take them what they calculated would be 90 days. In reality it took them 27 months. They spent two full winters locked in Arctic ice and barely made it out.

CARTY: Sgt. Ken Burton is the skipper of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police icebreaker, the St. Roch II, speaking by satellite phone from somewhere in the North Atlantic. This summer Sgt Burton and his crew retraced the voyage of the original St. Roch sixty years ago. When Sgt. Burton set out he expected to run into a lot of ice. He was shocked by what he found.

BURTON: It was a really interesting year this year. From Tuktoyaktuk right through to Pond Inlet we didn't see any ice at all, which is pretty much unprecedented in the last few decades up here to be able to travel that far north without worrying about ice.

CARTY: How many days did it take you to do what the St. Roch did?

BURTON: We were able to complete it in four weeks and that's the section that took the St. Roch a little over 18 months to complete.

CARTY: Such anecdotal evidence carries weight because it corroborates the scientific and historical data on sea ice. There seems to be a terrible feedback loop at work in the Arctic. When the Arctic Ocean is covered with white ice it reflects the sun's radiation back out into space. But melted, the sea is black. It absorbs more heat. Which in turn melts more ice.

BURTON: I've never seen anything like we encountered this year. The weather has been unusually warm. The school children in Spence Bay were expressing alarm because there was a new insect they had never seen there before. And it was a dragon fly. And stories like that I think should send out an alarm bell to academics and the scientific community. The ramifications of a warming trend, particularly the ramifications of an ice-free passage period for the Northwest Passage are absolutely tremendous.

(ocean waves and motor boat in distance)

CARTY: The ramifications have already started. And some of them are positive. Here on Banks Island in the middle of the Canadian Arctic Ocean, 150 German tourists are shuttling from their cruise ship to the shore to visit a native village. The ship makes regular Arctic tours but this is the first time it's been able to visit the community of Sachs Harbour because this year there has been no pack ice in the way. Less Arctic sea ice could also be a bonanza for shipping companies. If cargo ships can go from Japan to Europe across the Arctic they can shave 5,000 miles off the voyage. But there's a more negative side. The Arctic is part of a global system by which the earth regulates its temperature. It does it with air and ocean currents. The Gulf Stream, for example, keeps much of western Europe warm. It does that by pumping warm water -- a volume 25 times greater than in all of the earth's rivers -- out of the tropics up to the North Atlantic. Rob McDonald is an ocean and ice expert with Canada's Institute of Ocean Sciences.

MCDONALD: The Gulf Stream is pulled up into the Arctic as part of a loop where when it gets there the water is cooled and descends and then continues on in this large scale conveyor belt as Wally Broeker has called it.

CARTY: But the Gulf Stream conveyor belt faces a climate change threat. It comes from the possible release of more fresh water from the Arctic from melting pack ice, receding glaciers and additional precipitation. When that fresh water flows out into the North Atlantic it could dilute the salty water of the Gulf Stream just at the point where the Gulf Stream is sinking. If it stops or slows the sinking, the Gulf Stream could be shut down.

MCDONALD: And that's what people worry about because if you shut the conveyor belt off you could have a dramatic effect on the climate of a place like northern Europe -- years that had no summer. You would not be swimming in PEI, and you might also find the ocean climate changed such that fish stocks were not very happy there and you lost them.

CARTY: But surely that would happen over a long period of time?

MCDONALD: Well, people who study climate have always thought that, that climate is kind of a slow thing, but these changes can happen very quickly, in fact they can happen within a decade.

CARTY: That's a surprise.

MCDONALD: Quite a bit more than a surprise it's very worrisome because it means that some of the impacts we're talking about may happen suddenly to us or our children and these are not things we will be able to adapt to very quickly if that is the case.

(ocean waves and motor boat)

CARTY: The scenario that the Arctic could directly transform major weather patterns of the entire globe is just that, a scenario. But it is one that has created a major buzz among usually cautious scientists. They say we ignore the climate changes now occurring in the Arctic at our peril. This region is not just a sentinel of things to come later in the south. The changes that southern greenhouse gases seem to be making here may come back to haunt us all. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in Tuktoyaktuk, in the western Arctic of Canada.



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