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Arctic Science and Politics

It was a full house all day here in the world’s northernmost university.
The first two days are designated the “political” section, Wednesday to Friday will be the “science” section. Of course there has to be some overlap, with the scientific background for the politicians and the political considerations giving context to the scientists.
At lunchtime I talked to some scientists from North America and Europe attending the whole week. They seemed to have the feeling the political discussions were only skimming the surface. Some of them also said – and I’ve heard this a number of times before at conferences like this – it was a real pity the politicians didn’t stay around to engage with the scientists. There seems to be a consensus though that it is a good idea to bring scientists and the politicians who have the responsibility to decide on action taken based on scientific research – and to fund research – together more often.
US Rear Admiral Dave Titley had an interesting interpretation of the “tipping point” theme. “Melting sea ice in the Polar Ocean – a tipping point for US politics in the Arctic” was his presentation. He was stressing the Arctic is “tipping” into the mainstream, i.e. no longer a remote area, but one where shipping and oil and gas extraction would be on the increase from 2030 onwards, with a whole month ice-free every summer. He made no bones about the fact that the ice is melting fast and we need progress on a “polar code” and search-and-rescue procedures. He says it’s just a matter of luck that there has been no major cruise ship disaster so far, in what will remain dangerous waters.
In between times I talked to a Norwegian and two Russian “explorers”, who know all about that, the ones who took ships through the northern sea passages just last year. Things are really changing fast up here. That brings us back to the tipping points.
Spanish marine ecology professor Carlos Duarte was the “scientist amongst the politicians”. And he painted a worrying picture. 6 out of 14 “tipping elements” in the earth system, he says, are located in the Arctic. Let me close with a quick list of the dangerous factors he described: sea ice and albedo, the Greenland ice sheet, sea level rise, thermokarst and permaforost melting, increased freshwater runoff, methane hydrate release, pollutant release, ocean reversal to a CO2 source, boreal forest dieback and peat fires. While the Greenland ice cap melting and sea level increase are likely to be very long-term factors, the others could all be acting within decades, he says, and “tipping over” like dominos. He told me in an interview that he is really concerned with the paradox involved in exploiting even more fossil fuels which will further increase global warming and bring the “points of no return” closer, faster. He feels we are not far away from the “tipping point” represented by melting Arctic sea ice.He thinks the politicians have to abandon their reluctance to take unilateral steps and get moving.


January 25, 2011 | 11:46 am



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