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Here are two interesting facts. One is that the winter temperatures in the Arctic this year were the highest ever recorded. On two days in February, it was actually warmer at the North Pole than it was in Zurich, Switzerland. At one location in Greenland, the temperature rose to 36 degrees C higher than the usual average for that time of year.

The other interesting fact, revealed last month in two articles in ‘Nature’, one of the world’s leading scientific journals, is that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. In fact, it is now moving more slowly that at any time in the past 1,600 years (which is as far back as studies have gone). This could be very bad news for Western Europe.

The difficulty comes in figuring out what these facts mean – if they mean anything at all, and are not just random variations of an unusually extreme kind. And this is the point in the discussion at which you start to hear the climate scientists use the word ‘non-linear’ all the time.

Most people think of global warming as a smooth, gradual process. It might end up doing a lot of damage, but it will sort of creep up on you, not smack you in the face. Unfortunately, that is not how climate change has proceeded in many past cases of warming or cooling.

The change can be abrupt and quite extreme – and once it has happened, it becomes the new normal, perhaps for a very long time. Like many complex systems, the climate is non-linear: it stays the same for a long time, and then suddenly some ‘tipping point’ is reached, and the whole thing flips into a different configuration.

Now, the warming in the Arctic is not non-linear. It’s a trend that has been continuous for decades, although it has accelerated greatly in recent years: the amount of sea-ice coverage at the point of maximum freeze-up, in late March, has been far lower in 2015-18 than ever before.

Indeed, we’re almost certain to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean at the end of the summer melt season at some point in the next decade. Some of the ice will reform in the following winter, but less and less of it as the years pass. Without ice cover the water will be warmed directly by sunlight, so one day the whole ocean will be mostly ice-free year-round.

The focus of concern for the moment, however, is on what the warming is doing to the Greenland ice-cap. This ice is on land, and when it melts it raises the sea-level. More importantly for the near term may be the fact that it is putting a large volume of fresh water into the northern North Atlantic Ocean.

That may be part of what is slowing the Gulf Stream down. It’s a surface current of warm water from the tropics that travels at an average speed of six km per hour, contains as much water as there is in all the world’s rivers, and moves it all the way up to the seas between Iceland and Norway. Then the water cools off, drops to the bottom, and returns southwards as a deep-water cold current.

The Gulf Stream helps keep north-western Europe warm: England is at the same latitude as Labrador, but the average temperature is more than 10 degrees C higher. Norway, with 5 million people, is about the same latitude as southern Greenland (pop. 50,000). But the Gulf Stream has stopped entirely a number of times in the distant past, sometimes for centuries.

To be more precise, it stops going so far north: it ‘overturns’, dives to the bottom and heads back south long before it reaches the latitude of European countries like Ireland, Britain and Norway. And when it has done that in the past, the average temperature in those countries dropped by up to 10 degrees C.

There is reason to suspect that what was happening in these incidents was that a global warming trend was melting a lot of cool fresh water into the northern seas and blocking the Gulf Stream from getting so far north. So is that about to happen again? Nobody knows, but according to the latest studies the Gulf Stream has already slowed by 15% in the past 50-150 years.

When it shut down in the past it was abrupt and fast: non-linear, in other words. The 15% slowdown is not necessarily an indicator that the whole northern branch of the current is on the brink of shutting down. But then again, it might be.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 7. (“Indeed…year-round”)

Greenland’s Race for Modernity

By Gwynne Dyer

Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world: one in five Greenlanders tries to commit suicide at some point in their lives. Everybody in Greenland (all 56,000 of them) knows this. In fact, everybody knows quite a few people who have tried to commit suicide, and one or two who succeeded. So it is really a good idea to subject this population to an experiment in high-speed cultural and economic change?

Greenland is not fully independent: Denmark still controls its defence and foreign affairs, and subsidises the population at the annual rate of about $10,000 per person. But Greenlanders are one of the few aboriginal societies on the planet that is dominant (almost 90 percent of the population) on a large territory: the world’s biggest island. And it is heading for independence.

So the debate in this soon-to-be country is about what to aim for. Do you go on trying to preserve what is left of the old Arctic hunting and fishing culture, although it’s already so damaged and discouraged that it has the highest suicide rate on the planet? Or do you put the pedal to the metal and seek salvation in full modernisation through high-speed economic growth (while keeping your language and what you can of your culture)?

What’s remarkable about Greenlandic politics is how aware the players are of their dilemma and their options. “If you want to become rich, it comes at a price,” says Aqqaluk Lynge, one of the founders of the Inuit Ataqatigiit (Community of the People) party that ran the government until recently.

Lynge doesn’t want to pay that price, and under the Inuit Ataqatigiit administration all mining was banned in Greenland. Quite apart from the environmental costs of large-scale mining operations, Lynge said, the many thousands of foreign workers they would bring in would have a devastating impact on what is already a very fragile Greenlandic culture.

But the Siumut (Forward) party won last October’s election, and new Prime Minister Aleqa Hammond sees things very differently. Essentially, she thinks modernisation has gone too far to turn back now. Better to gamble on solving the current huge social problems (like suicide) by enabling everybody to live fully modern, prosperous lives. If you’re no longer marginalised and poverty-stricken, you’ll feel better about yourself.

With this in mind, she has issued more than 120 licenses for mining and petrochemical projects including a huge open-cast iron-ore mine that would ship 15 million tonnes of high-grade iron concentrate a year (mostly to China), drilling platforms for offshore oil and gas exploration, and even mines to produce uranium and rare earths. She has made her choice, and she understands it.

In a recent interview with The Guardian while she was visiting Norway, Aleqa Hammond said: “The shock will be profound. But we have faced colonisation, epidemics and modernisation before. The decisions we are making (to open the country up to mining and oil exploitation) will have enormous impact on lifestyles and our indigenous culture. But we always come out on top. We are vulnerable, but we know how to adapt.”

Brave words, but few Greenlanders have the technical and managerial skills to get senior jobs in these high-risk, high-cost enterprises ($2.5 billion for the iron ore mine alone), and most of them will not want the hard, dirty, dangerous jobs of the workers in the mines and on the rigs. If all goes well, they will no longer depend on the Danish subsidies that currently keep their society afloat, but they will just be shifting to a different source of subsidies.

To the extent that a sense of cultural marginalisation and defeat, and a life without meaningful work, is responsible for the Greenlanders’ problems, it’s hard to see how more money from a different source will help. Or how adding a few tens of thousands of foreign workers from places like China to the social mix will help, either.

The epidemic of depression and other psychological illnesses, the rampant alcoholism and drug use, and the tidal wave of suicides that plague the Greenlanders are not unique: almost all the aboriginal peoples of North America, and indeed elsewhere too, have elevated levels of these afflictions. In Canada, for example, the general population experiences a 12 per 100,000 rate of suicides, while aboriginal people in general have double that rate.

But the suicide rate among Inuit people in Canada is TEN times as high as it is among the general population – and among Inuit children and teens it is a staggering THIRTY times as high.

The Greenlanders live in a different country and have much more control over their lives, but they belong to the same Inuit culture that extends right across the high north from Alaska to Greenland. They also seem to share the same problems at the same heightened intensity, especially as regards suicide. These problems are unlikely to be cured simply by throwing money at them. It could even make matters worse.

Aleqa Hammond is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t: leaving the people in their current predicament is not a good choice, but going flat out for modernisation doesn’t feel like such a good option either. It would be a good time to call in the cultural engineers, if such a profession existed.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 11-13. (“The epidemic…worse”)

Race for the Arctic

1 August 2012

Race for the Arctic

By Gwynne Dyer

Russian television contacted me last night asking me to go on a programme about the race for Arctic resources. The ice is melting fast, and it was all the usual stuff about how there will be big strategic conflicts over the seabed resources – especially oil and gas – that become accessible when it’s gone.

The media always love conflict, and now that the Cold War is long gone, there’s no other potential military confrontation between the great powers to worry about. Governments around the Arctic Ocean are beefing up their armed forces for the coming struggle, so where are the flash-points and what are the strategies? It’s great fun to speculate about possible wars.

In the end I didn’t do the interview because the Skype didn’t work, so I didn’t get the chance to rain on their parade. But here’s what I would have said to the Russians if my server hadn’t gone down at the wrong time.

First, you should never ask the barber if you need a haircut. The armed forces in every country are always looking for reasons to worry about impending conflict, because that’s the only reason that their governments will spend money on them. Sometimes they will be right to worry, and sometimes they will be wrong, but right or wrong, they will predict conflict. Like the barbers, it’s in their professional interest to say you need their services.

So you’d be better off to ask somebody who doesn’t have a stake in the game. As I don’t own a single warship, I’m practically ideal for the job. And I don’t think there will be any significant role for the armed forces in the Arctic, although there is certainly going to be a huge investment in exploiting the region’s resources.

There are three separate “resources” in the Arctic. On the surface, there are the sea lanes that are opening up to commercial traffic along the northern coasts of Russia and Canada. Under the seabed, there are potential oil and gas deposits that can be drilled once the ice retreats. And in the water in between, there is the planet’s last unfished ocean.

The sea lanes are mainly a Canadian obsession, because the government believes that the North-West Passage that weaves between Canada’s Arctic islands will become a major commercial artery when the ice is gone. Practically every summer Prime Minister Stephen Harper travels north to declare his determination to defend Canada’s Arctic sovereignty from – well, it’s not clear from exactly whom, but it’s a great photo op.

Canada is getting new Arctic patrol vessels and building a deep-water naval port and Arctic warfare training centre in the region, but it’s all much ado about nothing. The Arctic Ocean will increasingly be used as a shortcut between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, but the shipping will not go through Canadian waters. Russia’s “Northern Sea Route” will get the traffic, because it’s already open and much safer to navigate.

Then there’s the hydrocarbon deposits under the Arctic seabed, which the US Geological Survey has forecast may contain almost one-fourth of the world’s remaining oil and gas resources. But from a military point of view, there’s only a problem if there is some disagreement about the seabed boundaries.

There are only four areas where the boundaries are disputed. Two are between Canada and its eastern and western neighbours in Alaska and Greenland, but there is zero likelihood of a war between Canada and the United States or Denmark (which is responsible for Greenland’s defence).

In the Bering Strait, there is a treaty defining the seabed boundary between the United States and Russia, signed in the dying days of the Soviet Union, but the Russian Duma has refused to ratify it. However, the legal uncertainty caused by the dispute is likelier to deter future investment in drilling there than to lead to war.

And then there was the seabed boundary dispute between Norway and Russia in the Barents Sea, which led Norway to double the size of its navy over the past decade. But last year the two countries signed an agreement dividing the disputed area right down the middle and providing for joint exploitation of its resources. So no war between NATO (of which Norway is a member) and the Russian Federation.

Which leaves the fish, and it’s hard to have a war over fish. The danger is rather that the world’s fishing fleets will crowd in and clean the fish out, as they are currently doing in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.

If the countries with Arctic coastlines want to preserve this resource, they can only do so by creating an international body to regulate the fishing. And they will have to let other countries fish there too, with agreed catch limits, since it is mostly international waters. They will be driven to cooperate, in their own interests.

So no war over the Arctic. All we have to worry about now is the fact that the ice IS melting, which will speed global warming (because open water absorbs far more heat from the Sun than highly reflective ice), and ultimately melt the Greenland icecap and raise sea levels worldwide by seven metres (23 ft). But that’s a problem for another day.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“First…resources”)



Climate Change Two

14 August 2003

What They Don’t Mention About Climate Change

By Gwynne Dyer

On several days last week, it was hotter in London than in Cairo. France has just declared a national emergency because of the extreme heat. But the winemakers of Germany are ecstatic about this year’s vintage, and Asian manufacturers of compact air-conditioning systems are having a boom year for European sales.

That’s how most people see climate change: a gradual warming-up that will hurt some people and benefit others. The people of Tuvalu and quite a lot of the Netherlands will be severely inconveniences as rising sea levels cover their homes, but they will either move or learn to breathe underwater. So no rush, no panic, and don’t take any measures that might hurt economic growth.

But anyone who has been paying attention to the evidence coming out of the Greenland ice cores for the past twenty years should know that the real threat is not gradual warming. It is that the warming will trigger an abrupt and rapid cooling of the global climate, with catastrophic consequences for existing human populations. And the Europeans would be hit first and worst, for the mechanism that would cause this shift is the disappearance of the Gulf Stream.

People talk about the ‘last ice age’ as if it were over, but it’s not. The current cycle of global glaciation began around three million years ago, when the land that is now Panama rose above sea level, closing the old ocean channel between North and South America and forcing a major reorganisation of ocean currents. Since then, ice sheets have covered around 30 percent of the land surface of the planet most of the time, although this has been regularly interrupted by major melt-offs called ‘inter-glacials’ when the ice coverage drops to about 10 percent.

During the past million years these warm, wet episodes have come along approximately every 100,000 years. The present inter-glacial began about 15,000 years ago, and nobody knows for sure how long it will last. We do know, however, that the previous inter-glacial began about 130,000 BC, and lasted for 13,000 years — so we could already be in overtime on this one.

The good news is that we don’t automatically slide back into maximum glaciation. What happened in 113,000 BC was that the global climate flipped into a cool, dry, windy phase that was much less pleasant than our current balmy conditions: average temperature at least 5 degrees C (9 degrees F) lower than the present, and massive droughts all over the place. It took a further push — probably massive volcanic eruptions in Indonesia around 70,000 BC — to start the ice sheets growing again.

The bad news is that even the ‘cool, dry, windy’ phase of the global climate would wreck human civilisation. The whole enterprise of civilisation that has allowed the human population to grow from perhaps 10 million to over 6,000 million has occurred within the warm, wet climatic bubble of the past ten thousand years. At least half the lands that now support agriculture would revert to tundra or semi-desert if we flipped back to the cool, dry and windy climate, and billions would die in the chaos of war and starvation that would follow.

Now for the worse news. When the flip happens, it isn’t gradual at all. The Greenland ice cores, a quarter-million-year record of annual snowfall that also tells us about average temperature, precipitation and even wind speed, contain an alarming message. When the climate mode shifts, global temperatures crash in 10 years or less — and stay down for centuries or millennia. And the very worst news is that the sudden flip into cool-and-dry is caused by gradual global WARMING.

The key to the whole cycle seems to be the Gulf Stream, which normally delivers huge amounts of warmth to the northern North Atlantic and western Europe (which would otherwise have the climate of Labrador). But ocean currents are basically conveyor belts for moving salt around the world’s oceans. If the warm water of the Gulf Stream, made even more dense and saline by evaporation on its long journey north, does not sink to the bottom and flow back south when it reaches the Greenland-Iceland-Norway gap, then the whole conveyor belt shuts down.

What stops the salty water from sinking? Dilution by too much fresh water on the surface, coming either from increased rainfall over the North Atlantic or from glacial melting and sudden outflows of fresh water from the Greenland fjords. What might cause these events? A rise in temperature in the region — and while average global temperature has only risen about one degree in the past century, the rise in the Arctic region has been several times greater.

The evidence in the Greenland ice cores is clear: the abrupt, high-speed flips in global climate known as Dansgaard-Oeschger events have happened many dozens of times. Maybe if we have a couple of more centuries of warm-and-wet conditions, we will learn enough about the fine detail of global climate to postpone the next flip indefinitely. But if it goes over the edge now, it’s a calamity for everybody.

Europeans, whose agriculture could no longer feed even a tenth of their current population, would be hit hardest of all, though nobody would get away with less than a fifty percent loss. So why didn’t this prospect get more media attention during the recent unprecedented heat wave in Europe? Maybe all the science journalists were on vacation.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The key…greater”)