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quailei | Ideas Reporter's Log

The Gateway to the Arctic?

 I have just about thawed out enough to write this, having spent a couple of hours taking pictures and recording sound in the beautiful but chilly twilight of an Arctic afternoon in January. I’m reporting for Deutsche Welle from "Arctic Frontiers". Now what does that bring to your mind? Northern countries squabbling about territory? Or the frontiers posed by snow, ice and extreme conditions to all but explorers, adventurers and the hardiest of scientists? A conference is probably the last thing that comes to mind – unless, like me, you are into the science and politics of the Arctic region.

Every year at this time, when people in the Arctic celebrate the "return of the sun" after the long dark Northern winter (it stays light from around 9.30 until nearly three at the moment), the Arctic Frontiers conference brings scientists, politicians, decision-makers, students and NGOs to Tromsö, two hours flight from the Norwegian capital Oslo and in the Arctic Circle. The town likes to be known as Norway’s "gateway to the Arctic". Historically, it has been the base for Arctic expeditions and still is. A lot of the more "comfort-loving" travellers who pass through nowadays are tourists on cruise ships. And the way the climate is changing, Tromsö is likely to be the departure point or maritime "crossroads" for a lot more travellers – and a lot more goods, in the not too distant future.

The melting of the Arctic sea ice, a lot faster than anticipated, is making the remote wilderness of this ecologically fragile region much more easily accessible. US rear admiral Dave Titley said in a presentation here the US navy reckons with a whole month of summer with no sea ice as early as 2030. That date has been continually coming forward in recent years. The question is what it will mean for the Arctic – and the rest of the planet. "Arctic Tipping Points" is the title of this year’s conference – which goes on for a whole week, with a political and a science segment. The Arctic plays a key role in regulating the world’s climate. Scientists are trying to work out when key factors – like the melting of the sea ice, which also acts as a protective cover, reflecting heat from the sun back up and away from the earth – could reach a "tipping point", or point of no return, triggering further warming as the darker ocean absorbs more heat. One study quoted here says 6 of 14 elements identified as "tipping elements" in the "earth system" are located in the Arctic.

Other speakers – like the Rear Admiral – have other interpretations of "tipping points" – like the Arctic "tipping" from being a remote inaccessible area into a mainstream region for (literally) "business as usual". Well not quite as usual. This remains a harsh and dangerous environment. But the business opportunities are definitely there. And what do the conservationists, NGOs and indigenous communities up here have to say about all this? Join me for regular updates on the Ice Blog.


January 26, 2011



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