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Arctic Ocean

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Climate Change: The Nature of the Evidence

1 September 2008

Climate Change: The Nature of the Evidence

By Gwynne Dyer

If Hurricane Gustav had struck New Orleans with full force, what would that have told us about the scale and speed of climate change? If more of the sea-ice cover in the Arctic Ocean is lost in this year’s summer melting season than last year (which was the worst on record), will that convince people that global warming is a real and present threat? What should people accept as evidence? And what will they accept in practice?

For scientists, the most persuasive evidence that global warming is happening faster than the models predict is the accelerating loss of Arctic sea-ice. The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado, which tracks the summer melt season each year, calculates that the loss of ice cover in the Arctic Ocean has already exceeded that of 2005, the second-worst year since observations began, and may surpass last year’s record low.

This is not only bad news for polar bears, since an ice-covered Arctic Ocean reflects most incoming sunlight back into space while open water, being darker, absorbs most of the sun’s heat instead. An ice-free Arctic Ocean changes the world’s heat balance and causes faster warming.

In the last twenty years of the 20th century, the ice cover shrank each year from an average of 14 million square kilometres (5.4 million square miles) in late winter to about 7 million sq. km. (2.7 million sq. mi.) in late September. Last year’s low was only 4 million sq. km. (1.55 million sq. mi.), and this year looks likely to be about the same. This is the kind of evidence that grabs scientists by the throat — but it barely gets anybody else’s attention at all.

Only a couple of years ago, the climate models suggested that we might see a completely ice-free Arctic Ocean in late summer by the 2040. Now some experts are speculating that we might get there as soon as 2013. But a thousand stories have been written about Hurricane Gustav for every one that is written about what is happening in the Arctic.

That’s understandable, because not one in a thousand human beings has ever seen the Arctic Ocean close up. Nobody is being evacuated because of this accelerating disaster, and so the media virtually ignores it. Whereas for a few days early this week, we were inundated with stories about the threat posed to New Orleans by Hurricane Gustav only three years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

If you include all the “missing” people whose bodies were never found, about two and a half thousand Americans were killed by Katrina. The incompetence of the federal government’s response made the event even more shocking to a nation that had come to think that this kind of natural disaster only happened to places like Honduras or Bangladesh, so it’s not surprising that President Bush cancelled his planned speech at the Republican National Convention at the last minute. The last thing John McCain’s campaign needed was a living reminder of that blunder.

However, the main impact of Katrina was to break a great many people out of their denial that climate change was a problem. The big shift in American public opinion over the following eighteen months owed much to Al Gore’s film “An Inconvenient Truth,” but for many Americans who would never believe a word Al Gore said, Katrina was the moment when the denial stopped.

Yet the truth is that Hurricane Katrina could have happened at any time in the past fifty years. In any of those years it would have produced the same results, assuming the same degree of human incompetence, because the flood defences of New Orleans had been inadequate for a long time. The climate change models predict more intense hurricanes, but not necessarily more of them — and Katrina was only category three on a scale that goes up to five.

Katrina hit in just the right place, and exposed the vulnerability of New Orleans. Hurricane Gustav, another category three storm, missed it and struck less populated areas which, this time, had been mostly evacuated. But if it had been Katrina II, it would have done more than a thousand stories about shifting rainfall patterns, acidifying oceans and melting ice to persuade people that climate change is a real threat to their well-being. Even though it was just a hurricane, and may have had nothing to do with global warming.

The regrettable reality is that there will not be a critical mass of people willing to act decisively on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in the developed countries — where most of the cuts must be made — until some really big natural disaster kills a lot of people IN ONE OF THOSE COUNTRIES.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a disaster caused by climate change (although it probably will be), because most people don’t understand enough about the climate to know what is valid evidence for climate change and what is not. Katrina helped to move Americans from denial to acceptance that global warming is a problem, but it will take an even bigger disaster to persuade them to act decisively.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“In the…at all”; and “Yet…five”)

Oil and the Arctic

25 May 2008

Oil and the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

What connects oil at $135 a barrel with last month’s discovery of huge cracks in the Ward Hunt ice shelf off Ellesmere Island at the top of Canada’s Arctic archipelago? And what might connect those two things with a new, even Colder War?

The cracks in the ice, further evidence that the ice cover on the Arctic Ocean is melting fast, were discovered by scientists tagging along with a Canadian army snowmobile expedition that was officially called a “sovereignty patrol.” The army was showing the flag because Canada, like the other Arctic countries, suspects that valuable resources will become accessible there once the ice melts. And the most valuable of those resources are oil and gas.

The strongest evidence for accelerated melting is the fact that more and more of the Arctic sea ice is thin “first-year” ice. Only about a metre (three feet) thick, it spreads across the ocean each winter, but tends to melt the following summer.

Melting has taken big bites out of the edge of the much thicker “permanent” ice in most recent summers, and unless some of the “first-year” ice that replaces it lasts through the following winter, then the melting really is speeding up. So everybody is watching to see what happens this summer, explained Dr Jim Maslanik of the University of Colorado — Boulder.

“If we see all the first-year ice melt out again, then probably we will have another record reduction in ice cover,” said Maslanik. “If we see this a couple of years running, that tells us…that we are about twenty or thirty years ahead of where we are supposed to be based on the climate models.”

If we are heading for an Arctic Ocean that is mostly ice-free in the summer, then drilling for gas and oil beneath that ocean can soon begin. Hardly a week goes by without somebody pointing to the US Geological Survey’s report that the Arctic basin contains a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas. But the event that did most to trigger this new concern about sovereignty was Artur Chilingarov’s publicity stunt last summer.

Chilingarov is a polar explorer of the old school (he was made a Hero of the Soviet Union in the old days for saving an ice-bound ship in Antarctica), but he is now deputy speaker of the Russian Duma (parliament) and Vladimir Putin’s personal “envoy” to the Arctic. Last summer, he took a three-man submarine down to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean precisely at the North Pole, and planted a Russian flag in the seabed.

“The Arctic is Russian. We must prove the North Pole is an extension of the Russian landmass,” he said afterwards, and affected surprise at the fact that other countries with an Arctic coastline saw this as a challenge to their sovereignty. Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, for example, flew to the Arctic the following week, and subsequently announced that Canada would built six to eight new “ice-strengthened” warships for Arctic patrols.

The other three countries with Arctic coastlines, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland) and Norway, are equally suspicious of Russian intentions. The real issue is about who owns the rights to the seabed, and the Russian claim is pretty ambitious.

Moscow claims that the Lomonosov Ridge, the subsea mountain range that goes straight across the middle of the Arctic Ocean, is an extension of the Russian territorial shelf, and therefore belongs to Russia all the way to the North Pole. Alternatively, if the Law of the Sea tribunal does not ultimately accept that claim, Moscow may have an even broader claim in reserve.

In the early 20th century seven countries laid claim to parts of Antarctica on the basis of “sectors”: pie-shaped slices running along lines of longitude (which converge at the poles). The width of those slices depended on where the various claimants owned territories near Antarctica, mostly islands in the Southern Ocean. Those claims are dormant because of a subsequent treaty banning economic development in Antarctica, but the precedent has not been forgotten.

By that precedent, Russia could lay claim to about half the Arctic Ocean on the basis of lines of longitude running from the far eastern and western ends of the country up to the North Pole — and in 1924 the old Soviet Union did precisely that. Nobody else accepted that claim then, and they wouldn’t now if Russia raised it again. But Russia has the big Arctic ports and the nuclear-powered ice-breakers to make its claim stick, and nobody else does.

That is where the current panic comes from. It probably won’t end up in a new Cold War, but it has certainly got the hens in the chicken coop all stirred up.

As is often the case with hens, they are over-reacting. Russia is in a more assertive mood than it was a decade ago, but there are no signs that it intends to pursue its claims by force. Moreover, there is no serious basis for the claim that a quarter of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves lie under the Arctic Ocean.

It always seemed implausible, given that the Arctic Ocean only accounts for slightly less than 3 percent of the Earth’s surface, but in fact the US Geological Survey never said anything of the sort. Neither has any other authoritative source, yet this factoid has gained such currency that it even influences government policy. Isn’t it interesting how readily people will believe something when they really want to?


This article is 925 words. To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4, 5 and 9. (“The strongest…models”; and “The other..ambitious”)

Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

1 February 2008

Climate Change: Panic in the Trenches

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s an old joke: everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. The same, unfortunately, is true for the climate.

They ARE talking about it. They were at it again in Honolulu last week, discussing mandatory, internationally binding commitments on greenhouse gas emissions (although Russia and India refused to allow any mention of that subject in the final statement). At the Bali meeting in December, China even hinted that it might consider something like binding emission caps in the long run. But there is no sense of urgency.

Not, at least, the sense of urgency that would be required to take actions that would invalidate the prediction, in the latest issue of the journal “Science”, that climate change may cost southern Africa more than 30 percent of its main crop, maize (corn, mealies), by 2030. No part of the developing world can lose one-third of its main food crop without descending into desperate poverty and violence.

Even some parts of the developed world would be in deep trouble at that point. One part of the developed world, Australia, is already in trouble, with its farmers facing what may be a permanent decline in the country’s ability to grow food, although Australia’s overall wealth is great enough to cushion the blow. But elsewhere, the mentality of “It can’t happen here” persists.

Over the past couple of years, due to a major shift in public opinion, we have arrived at something close to a global consensus that climate change is a major problem. Even George W. Bush now says that he is concerned about it. But there is no consensus on the best measures to deal with the problem, even among the experts, and the general public still does not grasp the urgency of the situation.

The two Democratic candidates for the presidency in the United States promise 80 percent cuts in emissions by 2050, and John McCain for the Republicans promises 50 percent cuts by the same date, and nobody points out that such a leisurely approach, applied in every country, condemns the world to a global temperature regime at least three or four degrees Celsius (5.5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than today.

Nobody points out that those are average global temperatures which take into account the relatively cool air over the oceans, and that temperatures over land would be a good deal higher than that. Few people are aware that these higher temperatures will prevent pollination in many major food crops in parts of the world that are already so hot that they are near the threshold, and that this, combined with shifting rainfall patterns, will cause catastrophic losses in food production.

And hardly anybody says that it is going to get really bad as early as 2030 unless we get global emissions down by 80 percent by 2020, because “everybody knows” that that is politically impossible, and nobody wants to look like a fool. So we must just hope that physics and chemistry will wait until we are ready to respond.

But here is a bulletin from the front. Over the past few weeks, in several countries, I have interviewed a couple of dozen senior scientists, government officials and think-tank specialists whose job is to think about climate change on a daily basis. And NOT ONE of them believes the forecasts on global warming issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just last year. They think things are moving much faster than that.

The IPCC’s predictions in the 2007 report were frightening enough. Across the six scenarios it considered, it predicted “best estimate” rises in average global temperature of between 1.8 and 4.0 degrees Celsius (3.2 and 7.2 degrees F) by the end of the 21st century, with a maximum change of 6.4 degrees Celsius (11.5 degrees F) in the “high scenario”. But the thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers that the IPCC examined in order to reach those conclusions dated from no later than early 2006, and most relied on data from several years before that.

It could not be otherwise, but it means that the IPCC report took no notice of recent indications that the warming has accelerated dramatically. While it was being written, for example, we were still talking about the possibility of the Arctic Ocean being ice-free in late summer by 2042. Now it’s 2013.

Nor did the IPCC report attempt to incorporate any of the “feedback” phenomena that are suspected of being responsible for speeding up the heating, like the release of methane from thawing permafrost. Worst of all, there is now a fear that the “carbon sinks” are failing, and in particular that the oceans, which normally absorb half of the carbon dioxide that is produced each year, are losing their ability to do so.

Maybe the experts are all wrong. Here in the present, out ahead of the mounds of data that pile up in the rear-view mirror and the studies that will eventually get published in the scientific journals, there are only hunches to go on. But while the high-level climate talks pursue their stately progress towards some ill-defined destination, down in the trenches there is an undercurrent of suppressed panic in the conversations. The tipping points seem to be racing towards us a lot faster than people thought.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (Over…situation”; and “And hardly…respond”)

Re “maize (corn, mealies)” in paragraph 3: the crop has different names in different parts of the English-speaking world. Choose the one familiar to you. Translators may disregard these details.