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Climate Change in the Arctic & around the globe

Lions, Giraffes and Hippos on Ice ?

So what are these African animals (I took the pictures in Tanzania) doing on the Ice Blog? Of course it’s all about biodiversity.
The Arctic is particularly sensitive to climate change and acts as a kind of early warning system. At the same time, ice melting up there will have consequences for the whole planet. I’ve gone on a lot about how melting sea ice affects the flora and fauna in Arctic regions. There’s also been a mention of how melting glaciers change the temperature, salinity and light conditions of the ocean. I’m currently working on a radio feature on my trip out onto the sea ice up in the Arctic with the “ambassadors” from the Climate Change College and scientist Chris Petrich. (Listen out for that in Living Planet). One of the main subjects of his research is the “albedo effect”. That is all about how the whiteness of ice and snow reflects solar radiation back up off the earth’s surface. When the snow cover decreases, the “melt ponds” are a much darker cover, and that absorbs warmth – exacerbating the overall warming effect. So, polar areas have a huge importance for the planet as a whole. Then there is the methane (around 23 times more powerful than c02 as a climate gas) being released from the huge areas of melting permafrost.
All this effects not only the area where it happens, but the whole planet. And of course, the sea level is rising, which will have disastrous effects for all the low-lying areas of the globe.
All our species of plants and animals are dependent on particular habitats and living conditions – from polar bears to giraffes, hippos, kangaroos or cuckoos. (Listen to Alison Hawkes on the plight of the “bird of the year” in the Black Forest. Will cuckoos exist soon only in those quaint – or exasperating – clocks?)
The Cuckoo Story
Last night the IUCN and UNEP staged an event here in Bonn to mark Biodiversity Day.
More about the IUCN
During it, I met Pavan Sukhdev,who’s heading the TEEB project,that is a study on The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. I felt very privileged to have the chance to talk to the man who’s in charge of what some people say could do for biodiversity what Nicholas Stern’s report did for climate change. The idea is to put a price on nature and make it clear, in economic terms, what it is worth to protect our biodiversity. The first part of the report will be presented in Bonn next week, but he did give me an idea of the scale of things. You can read the interview here:
Pavan Sukhdev on putting a price on nature


May 23, 2008 | 8:43 am



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Cool Forecasts – a Hot Topic?

They have no doubt that the planet is warming: Arctic explorers Marc Cornelissen,head of the Climate Change College, and archaeologist Anne Jensen, who rescues historic burial sites from being washed into the sea as a result of coastal erosion. (The sea ice is a natural protection barrier. As it diminishes, the land is left more vulnerable to the elements). I took the photo at Point Barrow, the northernmost point in the USA and well into the Arctic Circle.

People here in Germany are talking about a new study published in the journal Nature last week suggesting a possible lull in man-made global warming. (More in the “eco-news” bulletin which Nina Haase wrote for this week’s Living Planet programme):

This week’s “Eco-News” by Nina Haase

Scientists and politicians are worried that this might make people think they don’t have to rush to take action after all. The study doesn’t dispute the human role in global warming, but it predicts a cooling down from recent average temperatures between now and 2015, as a result of a natural and temporary shift in ocean currents. Now, experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are worried that people might become relaxed again about reducing emissions. There’s no doubt about the fact that people are more likely to take action if they see clear evidence of climate change and are worried about droughts and floods.
(Ines, I thought of you this morning when I read in the paper that Barcelona is relying on tankers bringing in drinking water.)
I was on a panel at an event here in Bonn today where some of the journalists – discussing the role of the media in reporting on climate change – said doubt had been cast on the methods used in the “cooling” report anyway.
In the hope that it might convince some more undecided readers of this blog (I realize of course I could be preaching to the converted with this), I’d suggest a listen to George Divoky, a dedicated ornithologist working on Cooper Island, in the Beaufort Sea north of the Arctic town of Barrow. George has been observing guillemots for 33 years and has quite clearly seen the evidence of climate change. The interview is attached for your listening pleasure. It’s also featured in our Living Planet programme this week.

This shows climate ambassador Cara, talking to a young eskimo,Kayan, who told us he is very concerned about the warming climate and the changes to the sea ice on which the eskimo culture depends so much. Cara is also on this week’s Living Planet programme.

Trying to look at ancient burial sites at Point Barrow. This shows typical everyday working conditions for scientists and other experts trying to keep track of coastal erosion and the ancient sites in danger of disappearin there.


May 14, 2008 | 4:13 pm




No More Ice for the Blog? (And Rabbie on the Retreat)

There are around 10,000 glaciers in the area around Whittier. All in all 29,000 square miles – 5% of the state of Alaska – are made up of glaciers. But with temperatures clearly on the rise, the ice is melting so fast that people here are talking of a boom in “climate change tourism”. – “See the glaciers before they’re gone”. Cynical? Bizzare? There is the old maxim that tourism destroys what it seeks. Climate change adds another factor. Some food for thought there. I talked to some of the young “climate ambassadors” about our own carbon footprint in doing this trip.
The background to the Climate Change College Arctic Field-Trip
Calculating your carbon footprint

(Erika, Aart and Cara “performing” for their project videos, linking climate protection at home to the melting of the Arctic ice. Check out Cara’s website:
Green “Do it yourself”
Start “Global WORMing by contacting Erika@ClimateChangeCollege.Org. Aart’s project info via Aart@ClimateChangeCollege.Org)

The organisers are paying into a fund to offset the emissions from travel. And the idea is that these youngsters will be doing such a lot to spread the word about what we’re doing to the planet with global warming – and what we can still do to cope with the changes and halt the trend – that it will be more than worth the trip. And after spending 10 days with them, I’m sure that’s very true. The projects they’re working in at home – some full-time, some alongside other jobs – show a deep commitment to finding solutions. Our Swedish ambassador Jakob Rutqvist in particular keeps reminding me that it’s not just about spreading the word but finding creative ways to tackle the problem and move forward. He’s involved in a very high-powered network, supported by WWF, aimed at encouraging innovation across the globe when it comes to reducing emissions and halting global warming.
The “Global Focus Network”
Jakob is currently planning a trip to China in June to meet potential partners in finding solutions to energy and other problems in a country that is crucial to safeguarding the future because of its huge population. He’s also the Swedish youth representative at a big gathering in Stockholm next weekend to discuss climate issues.
Jakob’s website
He’s invited Aart, the Dutch climate ambassador to go along. I’ve recruited them both to report on the conference for Deutsche Welle. This is a perfect story for our youth programme COOL. Anke and Laura, if you’re reading this, I think I’ve found you two new reporters.
Click here for the “coolest programme on the air”
Jakob and Aart are both keen to disprove the popular assumption that – unlike the 1968 generation being celebrated in the media at the moment 40 years on – today’s youth are not interested in activism or committed to change. They want to make a statement to demonstrate the opposite.

Aart told me he was really flabbergasted by our visit to the Begich Boggs glacier visitors centre.There’s a magnificent glass-walled viewing room. The trouble is that the Portage glacier has retreated so far that you can’t see it all from the centre. In less than 70 years, it has receded more than 2 miles. So there is an impressive view of Portage lake, iced over, and snowy hills, but definitely no glacier.
What bothered me just as much was that I wasn’t allowed to interview our guide through the centre or record any of her talk. – Because it was about climate change. She wasn’t authorized to speak officially on that. Melting Ice is clearly a “hot” topic.
The talk was informative, though, so thanks to our guide for that, even though she can’t be on the programme.
The glaciers in this area bear the names of famous authors –Byron, Shakespeare and – Robert Burns. Friends of Scotland please take note. Rabbie is definitely on the retreat in this area of Alaska. I hope it only applies to the glaciers.
More about Scotland and the network of Scots abroad
To get up close to the glaciers, we took a trip on a “landing boat”, loaded with kayaks for the ultimate and “otterly environment-friendly” approach to the ice wonders. (We met plenty of those “otterly laid-back” little sea “critters” on the way – and I enjoyed exchanging those otterly corny puns with Sebastian, a colleague on the trip. Thanks Seb.)

Our guide Andy is very experienced in minimum-impact camping, and made sure we didn’t disturb nature too much and just had the basics – but the right gear for the conditions.Sleeping in the vicinity of glaciers is an odd experience.

We had been prepared to sleep on thick snow, but our campsite was actually snow-free. Only the water was full of “ice cubes”.

Our three glaciers were rumbling so much during the night I thought I was in a thunderstorm. You frequently hear explosive crashes, and a bit closer up the ice crackles and pops away constantly.

“Sound-Rich Ice” (to be heard soon on Living Planet!)
The environment program you should be listening to every week. Podcast?

The ambassadors used the glacier background trip to film scenes for their “project movies”, linking their work at home to the dramatic ice melt in this very sensitive region. Ines from Spain braved the icy temperatures in her bikini and a rubber dingy.

The first half of her film had been shot in an empty outdoor pool at home, demonstrating the drought conditions which are causing desperate water shortages in Portugal. Her idea was to show that you might have to go a very long way to get water.
Unfortunately our trip was flawed when our expedition leader Marc Cornelissen – the mastermind behind the “Climate Change College” – got a message by satellite phone that his father was critically ill. Visibility was too poor for a helicopter to collect him, so Andy took him off in the “Zodiac” boat to meet another boat coming in from Whittier to take him back. This was very sad for all the group, as the field trip and Marc’s whole project was just coming to its highpoint. They all coped very well, including taking over the logistics of getting the group and all their equipment organised for the trip home afterwards.We hope things will work out OK for Marc.
Marc told his ambassadors as he left they had to see the project through. So the kayak trip went ahead.

We paddled through a field of mini ice-bergs. Now I know what it feels to be a slice of lemon in a glass of fizzy drink with ice cubes in it. I recorded as we went along – and even interviewed Marie Laure from kayak to kayak as we reached our destination – as close as safety would allow to the 3 glaciers.

She’s in love with snow and ice, but concerned that people looking to enjoy it on the ski slopes of Europe use up too many of our natural resources, with artificial snow and a huge amount of water in general. Her project is to save on water consumption in the ski resorts of her home in France by simple things like water-saving showerheads. She told me about it and her deep concern about global warming as we sat and marvelled at the glaciers – and the sound of them melting and breaking in the background.

That would be a good place to end this entry of the “Ice Blog”. The Climate College Field Trip has come to an end. But of course climate change is a never-ending story. Back in Bonn, Germany, we’re in a heat wave, with high summer temperatures, and it’s only early May. (The mosquitos were already out in Fairbanks, by the way, way too early, the locals said). I heard on the radio that the oil supply will “peak” as early as in 10 years. And the IPCC climate chief says the sea level increase through global warming definitely exacerbated the effects of the disastrous cyclone in Myanmar.
Watch this space for more Arctic pictures and climate news and views in the weeks to come.
– Not the End –


May 11, 2008 | 12:57 pm




Of Biodiesel, Worms – and Glaciers

writing this in Whittier, a port south of Anchorage surrounded by three glaciers. The glaciers have retreated considerably in recent years, and we’re going out to have a look tomorrow. The ambassadors had their first quick look at a glacier from a distance tonight.

We drove here from Healy in a biodiesel bus, driven by Andy, who’s going to be our guide tomorrow.

We stopped in Anchorage to meet Zane, the guy who makes the biodiesel from recycled cooking oil.We have reported on similar ventures in Germany on Living Planet.
Living Planet: Environment Matters

It was interesting to hear about the situation of renewable energy sources in Alaska at a briefing in Anchorage. At the moment, renewables only account for one percent of energy production. I think that’s far too low, but given that this state provides about a quarter of the USA’s oil output, people say it’s a good start.
All about the Renewable Energy Alaska Project
Felipe, our Portuguese climate ambassador, was impressed and made contact to Zane with a view to meeting up again and exchanging info.

Erika (with the compost project) used the opportunity to introduce Alaska to “Wormy” and campaign for composting with worms. Art, who’s working on turning businesses carbon-neutral, lent some active support.

This photo shows some avalanche debris outside a tunnel we drove through, constructed in World War II in just a year. Some folks thought driving through a tunnel where all you could see in the dark was the ice walls was so cool they wanted another go. Of course we didn’t waste fuel doing that. This is the climate change college after all. (!)There was some interesting “avalanche debris” outside the tunnel:

Marie Laure, our French ambassador, was the one with the wet feet today. I found out she’s a sheperdess at home, so that’s probably why she was unphased by this.

We’ve just had our briefing for tomorrow’s expedition. I still have to sort out my “gear”. We’re camping out by the glacier tomorrow evening,time I got going. And there will be no blog entry tomorrow. More when I get back from what Andy calls “the back country”l


May 5, 2008 | 10:11 pm



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Ice-capades and Alaska Baking with Methane?

This will be a picture day to more than make up for the last couple of text-rich entries.Cara has helped me solve the picture problem and the laptop has not been playing up so far.
Hiking across permafrost tundra and frozen lakes, bear tracks, drilling through ice, setting “umbrella traps” (caught any good brollies recently?), digging boots out of deep snow, sometimes with leg still attached…

We’re now in Healy, on the borders of the Denali National Park. We’ve left the freezing temperatures of the Arctic, but are still in snow and ice country.

We spent an incredible day in the (ice)-field with Katey Walter and her assistant Laura, scientists from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. They’re studying methane emissions from melting permafrost lakes and their contribution to climate change.

Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times more powerful than co2. Climate change models need to be adjusted to include it. As global temperatures increase, ponds and lakes are formed as the permafrost thaws. There’s been a considerable increase in methane measured seasonally in high northern latitudes, and Katey is looking into the background. How is it formed, to what extent, how much is released under what conditions and what does it all mean for the future climate?
We drove to 8-Mile lake, the dirt track rough but mostly cleared of snow. We were on the lookout for moose and bears, but they kept a low profile.We did find bear tracks on the ice, though.

Transported power drills and other equipment for collecting samples. The idea is to collect plant matter from under the ice and on the tundra to check in the lab, and to collect some methane being emitted from the lake.

One hazard moving around from ice to tundra is losing your boot in snow up to your thighs if you land on a deep soft bit (happened frequently). Sometimes somebody has to dig it out.

The lake is still frozen solid, although the top layer gets mushy or fluid in the sun, so we were wading through water at times. Strange feeling, have to rely on Katey’s word that the ice will hold us all with no problems.
Set up equipment on tarpaulin on ice and have a picnic lunch.

One team of CC ambassadors helped Katey drill into the ice to get plant samples for analysis. The other went with Laura onto the (melting) permafrost to collect samples of dead leaves for analysis (all to find out how fast and under what conditions their decay produces methane).
The students (well they’re not really students, but they do belong to a “College”) worked really hard and without whinging, out on the ice a whole day in strong sunshine. I’m impressed by their knowledge of climate issues, the questions they ask, and how well they soak up the knowledge and can present it. I’ve been interviewing them intermittently (to be heard on Living Planet in the weeks to come).

Laura found a methane “hotspot” in a little “puddle-pond”.

She put an umbrella trap over it, a plastic umbrella/funnel with plastic bottles attached, which collects the gas.

Then she found a second hole which required a boat to access. Art hiked back to base camp, brought and inflated the dingy and they put out a 2nd trap.

Katey and Laura are great, amazingly dedicated and very patient with visiting journalists and “trainee” scientists.

Marc Cornelissen, our expedition leader is a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and he’s completely unflappable. He can magic up lithium batteries which last longer in the cold, fix laptops, cameras, ice-drills, rescue lost equipment stuck in the ice and provide extra socks and even boots after those little “icecapades”.And he just keeps going non-stop.
You can actually light the methane we collected from the lake. Scientists are working on trying to capture it to use it for fuel. Katey says that would be really good for the environment and the climate.


May 5, 2008 | 5:47 pm