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Arctic climate (anti-)Trump card in Davos
With the Trump inauguration looming large, we have every reason to be more concerned than ever about the prospects for the climate. And given that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the high north could be said to be in double trouble.
All the more reason to look beyond the political stage in the narrowest terms to push the need for climate action. Take, for instance, the “Arctic Basecamp” which has been set up in Davos in Switzerland, where that illustrious gathering the World Economic Forum (WEF) is underway. “Responsive and responsible leadership” is the theme, with 3,000 participants attending, more than ever before. And the biggest delegation is from the USA, with 836 participants.
— ArcticBasecamp Davos (@ArcticDavos) January 17, 2017
Given the president elect’s views on climate change, the decision by some influential scientists to use the mega economic gathering of the great and mighty is a smart move. It seems the time has come to acknowledge that we cannot rely on governments alone to halt climate change and preserve the Arctic ice. Maybe we just have to admit that business has a huge impact, huge potential, and should bear a lot of the responsibility for climate protection? And of course, the chance to get an urgent climate message across to a group of highly influential people from business and politics is just too good to miss.
Time for some responsive and responsible leadership for the Arctic?
A group of leading scientists are holding an Arctic Science Summit in Davos on January 18th, and plan to call on global leaders for immediate action on the Arctic. The summit is a collaboration between Lancaster University, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).
Against the background of unprecedented temperatures almost 20 °C (36 Fahrenheit) warmer than normal in some parts of the Arctic this winter, the summit is designed as a call to action to global leaders to apply the theme of “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”, in tackling the global risks posed by Arctic change. Al Gore, Chair of the Climate Reality Project and Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are amongst the high profile figures invited.
The summit is being hosted in Arctic Basecamp style tents in the grounds of the WSL, which is aptly positioned close to the official delegate hotel. A good publicity stunt. The tents are a catchy contrast to the luxury accommodation around them. The equipment is provided by the British Antarctic Survey, (BAS) another of the organisers. A reputed scientific organization and active in a region that captures the imagination of a wide audience as the coldest, remotest place on the planet. And which, still, is not immune to the effects of global warming.
Global platform for Arctic action
To Iceblog readers, the message from Jeremy Wilkinson, one of the organizers from BAS, comes as no surprise: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there. The Arctic is the canary in the coalmine for the world’s climate.” But many of the world’s most powerful decision-makers still haven’t got the message, he says. (Tut-tut, not all following the Iceblog??):
“It (the Arctic) is sending us a warning cry that has profound consequences and risks globally. Yet the Arctic remains invisible to the world’s most powerful decision-makers. We want to change that.”
“We know that science has important answers in assessing the global risks associated with the Arctic ice melt and we need to make this as visible as possible in Davos. Arctic change is at a critical juncture; hard choices need to be made. These must be evidence-based and not ideologically driven. Ultimately we want to see a new Global Platform for Arctic Action, and it starts here with this summit.”
Renowned climate expert Professor Konrad Steffen is Director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. He, too, stresses the need for urgent action and the global relevance of the melting ice:
“The Polar Regions, as well as Alpine regions, will experience two to three times the mean level of global warming predicted for the future. We need to act swiftly to delay, or prevent, the loss of the ice masses in the mountains and the shrinking of the two polar ice sheets which will lead to unsustainable sea level rises.”
“Everybody who’s anybody…”
In a piece for the Arctic Journal entitled “Bringing the Arctic to the mountain”, journalist Kevin McGwin writes:
“Unofficially, Davos is the place to be if you consider yourself to be anyone in politics, business or the non-profit industry, and folks who attend have a saying of their own: the more programme events you turn up at, the less you get out of it. The real action takes place on the sidelines.”
Here’s hoping there is plenty of that at the Arctic Basecamp. McGwin goes on:
“Considering that 3,000-person guest list starts with António Guterres, the newly installed UN secretary-general, and encompasses multiple heads of state (including Xi Jinping) and captains of industry from over 1,000 companies, there is probably something to this.”
Indeed. If you want to reach a lot of very influential people with a message about risks associated with climate change, Davos is certainly one place to do it. McGwin notes that the major Arctic Frontiers gathering is taking place in Tromso, Norway, at the same time. I have attended that event several times in recent years. It is undoubtedly an important meeting with a scientific and a political section. But the global players gathered in Davos should, in principle, be able to exert far more influence when it comes to changing the economic and energy patterns which have been the basis for bringing about the climate change that is melting the Arctic.
Arctic melt – business opportunity?
The WEF also reaches wider media coverage, and, arguably, those who really need to change things. Preaching to the converted will not stop climate warming. McGwin quotes Gail Whiteman:
“Few outside the region have an idea of the role the Arctic plays, or the changes it is facing. Those that do tend to see the changes as an opportunity.”
This puts one of the key problems with Arctic climate change in a nutshell. Melting ice means easier access, more activity and thus higher risks for the fragile ecosystem – and ultimately, possibly more climate warming through increased emissions.
Professor Whiteman told McGwin:“We are at Davos to make the Arctic visible. Arctic change is at a critical point, and the kind of decisions that need to be made start at Davos.”
The organizers will also be circulating a petition asking Davos participants to contribute to a kitty to help fund an information campaign to keep decision-makers up to date on what is happening in the Arctic.
It seems the Arctic basecamp idea first came up at Arctic Frontiers in Tromso back in 2012. The Arctic Journal says Whiteman realized, during a discussion there, that people were very keen to get people in the boardrooms of companies to talk about the risk Arctic change was posing to their business. It dawned on Whiteman that the place to reach these people would be in Davos rather than Tromso.
At last year’s meeting, the WEF issued an Arctic Investment Protocol. Whiteman, worries that “once investors take an interest in the Arctic, they will see the opportunity but overlook the risk”.
If the message that “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic”is to sink in, McGwin concludes his article, then “what happens in Davos must not stay in Davos”.
Agreed, colleague. But, as we know, competition for public attention is fierce. Let us hope that the Arctic Basecamp will not be upstaged by the other events going on in the Swiss alps this week. And that the overall focus there “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”, and the need for international dialogue and concerted action rather than isolationism will still make the world headlines as the Trumpocene commences across the Atlantic.
DateJanuary 17, 2017 | 2:22 pm
TagsAntarctic, Arctic, Arctic Frontiers, Climate, Davos, Emissions, glaciers, ice, Oil, science, snow, Switzerland, Tromso, Trump, WEF
“Cheers” to a cool Arctic in 2017
As 2016 draws to an end, the shortest day has passed in the northern hemisphere, and it should normally be a “cool” time of the year, in more ways than one, especially in the Arctic. But with temperatures at a record high, sea ice at a record low and feedback loops springing into action, the Arctic is hotting up – and I wish I could say the same for efforts to halt climate change.
Ice expert Jason Box tweeted this morning:
— Jason Box (@climate_ice) December 23, 2016
Meteorologist Scott Sutherland writes on Dec. 22nd:
“(…) North Pole temperatures have climbed to 30oC hotter than normal for this time of year.
(…) Now, in late December, in the darkness of the Arctic winter, air temperatures at the North Pole have actually reached the freezing point, as recorded by weather buoys floating within a few degrees of the pole. As of the morning of Thursday, December 22 (3 a.m. EST), the International Arctic Buoy Programme (IABP), operated out of the University of Washington, recorded temperatures from these buoy up to 0oC or slightly higher.”
“(…) Right now, Arctic sea ice extent is at the lowest level ever recorded.”
Arctic in need of tlc?
It looks like the Arctic is urgently in need of some tlc – or maybe intensive care would be more fitting.
The Arctic Report Card for 2016 recently published by NOAA should have set alarm bells ringing. Based on environmental observations throughout the Arctic, it notes a 3.5 degree C increase since the beginning of the 20th century. The Arctic sea ice minimum extent tied with 2007 for the second lowest value in the satellite record – 33 percent lower than the 1981-2010 average. That sea ice is relatively young and thin compared to the past.
A “shrew”d indicator of Arctic warming
Let me quote what are described as the “Highlights”:
“The average surface air temperature for the year ending September 2016 is by far the highest since 1900, and new monthly record highs were recorded for January, February, October and November 2016.
After only modest changes from 2013-2015, minimum sea ice extent at the end of summer 2016 tied with 2007 for the second lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1979.
Spring snow cover extent in the North American Arctic was the lowest in the satellite record, which started in 1967.
In 37 years of Greenland ice sheet observations, only one year had earlier onset of spring melting than 2016.
The Arctic Ocean is especially prone to ocean acidification, due to water temperatures that are colder than those further south. The short Arctic food chain leaves Arctic marine ecosystems vulnerable to ocean acidification events.
Thawing permafrost releases carbon into the atmosphere, whereas greening tundra absorbs atmospheric carbon. Overall, tundra is presently releasing net carbon into the atmosphere.
Small Arctic mammals, such as shrews, and their parasites, serve as indicators for present and historical environmental variability. Newly acquired parasites indicate northward shifts of sub-Arctic species and increases in Arctic biodiversity. “
Getting the message across
The NOAA website sums it up in a video, saying:
“…Rapid and unprecedented rates of change mean that the Arctic today is home to and a cause for a global suite of trillion dollar impacts ranging from global trade, increased or impeded access to land and ocean resources, changing ecosystems and fisheries, upheaval in subsistence resources, damaged infrastructure due to fragile coastlines, permafrost melt and sea level rise, and national security concerns.
In summary, new observations indicate that the entire, interconnected Arctic environmental system is continuing to be influenced by long-term upward trends in global carbon dioxide and air temperatures, modulated by regional and seasonal variability.”
Margaret Williams, the managing director for WWF’s US Arctic programme had this to say:
“We are witnessing changes in the Arctic that will impact generations to come. Warmer temperatures and dwindling sea ice not only threaten the future of Arctic wildlife, but also its local cultures and communities. These changes are impacting our entire planet, causing weather patterns to shift and sea levels to rise. Americans from California to Virginia will come to realize the Arctic’s importance in their daily lives.
“The science cannot be clearer. The Arctic is dramatically changing and the culprit is our growing carbon emissions. The report card is a red flashing light, and now the way forward is to turn away from fossil fuels and embrace clean energy solutions. Protecting the future of the top of the world requires us to reduce emissions all around it.”
Sack the teacher, kill the messenger?
That was her response to the Arctic Report Card. In my school days, the report card was a business to be taken seriously. A bad report meant you were in trouble and would have to smarten up your act or you would be in big trouble with mum and dad.
The question is – who gets the report, and who has to smarten up their act?
This one should make the governments of this world speed up action on mitigating climate change and getting ready for the impacts we will not be able to halt.
Then again, they could just try to get rid of the messengers who come up with the bad news. If your kid’s report card is bad, do you try to improve his performance – or get rid of the teacher who came up with the negative assessment – based on collected data?
I am concerned that the administration in the wings of the US political stage could be more likely to do the latter. As I wrote in the last Ice Blog post, the new Trump administration is threatening to cut funding for climate research. The proposed new Cabinet is well stocked with climate skeptics.
Concern about research
Financial support for the Arctic Report Card is provided by the Arctic Research Program in the NOAA Climate Program Office. Its preparation was directed by a “US inter-agency editorial team of representatives from the NOAA Pacific marine Environmental Laboratory, NOAA Arctic Resarch Program and the US Army Corps of Engineers, Cold Regions Research and Engineering laboratory.
Yereth Rosen, writing for Alaska Dispatch News, quotes Jeremy Mathis, the director of NOAA’S Arctic research program and one of the editors of the report card.
“The report card this year clearly shows a stronger and more pronounced signal of persistent warming than in any previous year in our observational record”.
“We hope going into the future that our scientists and researchers still have the opportunity to contribute and make possible the summary that we’re able to present. So we have every intention of continuing to publish the Arctic Report Card as we have in the past and pulling together the resources and the right people that allow us to do that”.
Livid and acrimonious
The debate over President Obama’s announcement that he was making a vast area of the Arctic Ocean off-limits to drilling for oil or gas, shows the dilemma of our times – and .. which could influence the living conditions on our planet for generations to come.
Erica Martinson, writing for the Alaska Dispatch News, provides interesting insights into the debate for those of us who do not live in Alaska.
She quotes Alaska’s Republican Congressman Don Young, saying he used “livid language” in his response. Obama’s move means “locking away our resources and wuffocating our already weakened economy”. He goes on “Alaska is not and shuld not be used as the poster child for a pandering environmental agenda”.
Ooh. Livid indeed.
She also quotes Republican Senator Dan Sullivan as describing the move as “one final Christmas gift to coastal environmental elites”. So would those be the indigenous communities being forced to relocate because climate changes are destroying their homes, Senator?
The administration, on the other hand, says it is protecting the region from the risk of a catastrophic oil spill, Martinson writes.
It seems to me that Obama’s parting gift goes rather to the “Alaska Native communities of the North Slope” who “depend largely on the natural environment, especially the marine environment, for food and materials”, and to the many endangered and protected species in the area, “including bowhead and fin whales, Pacific walrus, polar bear and others”.
What about the Paris Agreement?
But as well as that regional aspect, the decision not to open up new regions to drilling for oil and gas is in line with the global need to cut fossil fuel emissions to halt the warming of the world.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, CEO of “Defenders of Widife”, puts it:
“It marks the important recognition that we cannot achieve the nation’s climate-change goals if we continue to expand oil and gas development into new, protine environments like the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans”.
This is not just about Alaska, not just about the Arctic, but the future of the planet as a whole.
The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) says 2016 is on track to be the hottest year on record. According to UN estimates, the global temperature in 2016 was 14.88 degrees C – 1.2 degrees higher than before the industrial revolution began in the mid-19th century.
In an article for the New York Times on December 22, Henry Fountain and John Schwartz quote NOAA’s Arctic Research Program director Jeremy Mathis.
“Warming effects in the Arctic have had a cascading effect through the environment” “We need people to know and understand that the Arctic is going to have an impact on their lives no matter where they live”. That includes the oil-industry-friendly and climate skeptical team that is set to enter the White House in the New Year,
So when I propose a toast to a cool Arctic in 2017, I am not just thinking of my friends in the high north. For all our sakes, we have to kick our fossil fuel habits, save energy and cut the emissions which keep the giant refrigerator that helps make our world a viable place to live well chilled.
DateDecember 23, 2016 | 2:58 pm
Tags2017, Alaska, Arctic, Arctic Economic Council, Climate, Emissions, Greenland, ice, New Year, Obama, ocean acidification, Oil, polar bears, research, science, Svalbard, Trump, Warming, wildlife, WWF
Can environmentalists trump Trump’s climate plans?
When it comes to the latest data on the state of the Arctic sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet or other key features of the cryosphere, the chances are NASA will have been involved in providing it. For those of us interested in protecting our icy regions against climate change, US President-elect Donald Trump’s plan to scrap NASA’s climate research and shift the funding to space exploration is alarming, to say the least.
Why the world needs NASA – not just for space
Two of my colleagues at DW talked to leading scientists about Why Trump scrapping NASA climate funding is bad news for our planet. Thomas Hollands from the German polar agency the Alfred Wegener Institute explains the essential role played by NASA’s network of satellites in providing data for climate researchers the world over.
“Scientists around the world depend on NASA for a variety of information – from measuring the state of the Earth’s atmosphere and the shape of its gravity field, to observations on glacier melting, sea ice formation, forest loss and urban growth”, the article says. It goes on to explain how important it is to have continuous measurements over time to be able to establish trends and changes.
Presumably, of course, if the Trump administration makes good on election promises to revive the US coal industry, there are those who would find it advantageous to get rid of any technology that can measure the extent of the impact of fossil fuel emissions on the world’s climate. A scenario to be avoided at all costs.
So I was interested to read a piece on the news agency AP this week headlined “Trump rollback of Obama climate agenda may prove challenging”. I hope “challenging” will turn out to be an understatement.
The story, by Michael Biesecker, says a President Trump would be in a strong position to dismantle some of President Obama’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions:
“But experts say delivering on campaign pledges to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency and bring back tens of thousands of long-gone coal mining jobs will likely prove far more difficult for the new president”, Biesecker writes.
Environmental groups are gearing up to defend Obama’s environmental legacy in court. Sierra Club Executive Director Michal Brune is quoted as saying “we intend challenging every single attempt to roll back regulations on air, water and climate”, and that his group is already hiring additional lawyers. It does not surprise me that fundraising for environmental causes has also spiked since Donald Trump’s victory.
The question is just how much the President is able to do and what tools are available to opponents to stop him.
The powers of the President
Many legal experts believe Mr. Trump would be able to cancel the Paris Climate Treaty, as he threatened to do when he was campaigning (although his stance has shifted slightly in the meantime). It is not a treaty and was not approved by the (Republican-controlled) Senate. The future president could also order the EPA – where the transition team is being led by a climate skeptic leading a think-tank funded by the fossil fuel industry – not to take the action required to meet the US commitment to cut emissions.
It seems, though, that it is not that easy to dismantle EPA regulations which have already been finalized and implemented. Jody Freeman, director of the environmental law program at Harvard Law School, is quoted as saying “the agency has already built up a very strong record to support those rules”. Ultimately, “it can be very hard to do an about-face.”
From the legal point of view, the President cannot get rid of the EPA without congressional approval – which could be prevented by filibustering. (He could, of course, slash its budget).
When it comes to abolishing NASA’S climate research programme, Mr Trump will also find himself facing some tricky hurdles.
“NASA’s study of earth science is currently mandated by federal law, which means voiding the program would require congressional action”, AP writes. That too means Democrats could block things using a filibuster.
What happened to common sense?
Ideally, common sense and concern for the wellbeing of people and the health of the planet we live on should ensure that Obama’s environmental and climate policies are not turned around. The advances in renewable energy also mean it makes economic sense to shift away from fossil fuels to wind and solar. In fact, it seems the courts will have to tackle the ins- and outs in lengthy and costly investigations.
This past week, in the USA, a group of American youths officially won the right to sue the government of the United States – the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after China – for failing to curb climate change. The Oregon district court upheld the main argument, that “the government has known for more than 50 years that the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels was destabilizing the climate system in a way that would significantly endanger plaintiffs, with the damage persisting for millennia.” Yet, the court argues, the government has failed to take action, making it responsible for some of the harm caused by climate change.
Here in Germany, there is also a court case in process, which could set a precedent. A farmer and mountain guide in the Peruvian Andes is suing the German energy giant RWE. Saúl Lliuya from Huaraz says his home is at risk of flooding, as it lies beneath a melting glacier in the Andes mountains. He argues that the company’s coal power emissions contribute to climate change, and so RWE should have to pay a share of measures to protect his home. But RWE says there is no direct link connecting CO2 emissions to the danger of flooding. Lliuya is being supported by the environmental organization Germanwatch. In my Living Planet radio show this week I broadcast an interview with the organisation’s policy director, Christoph Bals.
The plaintiff’s argumentation is that because RWE has produced 0.5 percent of all global emissions since the industrial revolution, the company should at least pay 0.5 percent of the measures to protect the farmer and his home town from flooding as the glacier above it continues to melt. Bals sees it as a major achievement that the case is being dealt with in the German court as one that could set a precedent. Even if the lawyers are not able to prove a direct link and win the case, he says getting to this stage is a demonstration that it is possible to go to court against companies like RWE on climate grounds.
“From now on this is one of the options on the table. I am sure that as soon as we see in the world that we will not stay below two degrees or 1.5 as said in the Paris Agreement, those cases will be much more likely – and it will be much more likely also that the individual court will decide you are right. So for the future this would be one major option if we don’t get a political solution”.
There has to be some food for thought in there for Mr. Trump and his advisors. Interesting times, indeed. And environment and climate advocates have their own trump cards in their hands.
DateDecember 2, 2016 | 2:44 pm
New report sees Arctic melt on course to tip global climate
Scientists say the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard has seen such extreme warmth this year that the average annual temperature could end up above freezing for the first time on record. Ketil Isaksen of the Norwegian Meterological Institute said today the average temperature in Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, is expected to be around 0 Celsius with a little over a month left of the year. He called the abnormal warmth “shocking” and beyond anything he could have imagined 10 years ago. The normal yearly average is minus 6.7 C.
And that is not the only shocking thing going on up north. The Arctic sea ice is melting in November. Temperatures in the region are 20 degrees Celsius above usual. Reindeer are dying across Siberia. Polar bears are stranded on land. It’s hard to keep up with the extent and speed of climate change in the far north of the planet. And we in the media have to be aware of the danger that the reports become so commonplace the “new normal” no longer arouses interest.
Warming, warming, hot
Yet the ever faster melting of our Arctic ice could spell disaster even for distant regions of the planet. What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic, as discussed here on the Ice Blog many times before. But a new, key report launched today indicates that the effects of increasingly rapid Arctic warming could be set to push global climate change out of control.
The Arctic Resilience Assessment (ARA) is an Arctic Council project led by the Stockholm Environment Institute and the Stockholm Resilience Centre. It is based on collaboration with Arctic countries and Indigenous Peoples in the region, as well as several Arctic scientific organizations. The ARA (previously Arctic Resilience Report) was initiated by the Swedish Ministry of the Environment as a priority for the Swedish Chairmanship of the Arctic Council (May 2011 to May 2013) and is being presented under the US Chairmanship. It aims to synthesize knowledge on Arctic change and how people and the ecosystem are coping with it, bringing the wide range of different factors together.
“Environmental, ecological, and social changes are happening faster than ever in the Arctic, and are accelerating. They are also more extreme, well beyond what has been seen before. This means the integrity of Arctic ecosystems is increasingly challenged, threatening the sustainability of current ways of life in the Arctic and disruption of global climate and ecosystems”, the report says.
Beyond the tipping point
The researchers issue a stark warning: “Some changes are so substantial (and often abrupt), that they fundamentally alter the functioning of the system: an ecological “tipping point” has been crossed. The report examines 19 of these “tipping points” or “regime shifts”, as they are also known: “They affect many ecosystem services that are important to people within and outside the Arctic: from regulating the climate, to providing sustenance (e.g. through fishing)”, the experts tell us.
“The consequences of some of these shifts are likely to be surprising and disruptive – particularly when multiple shifts occur at once. By altering existing patterns of evaporation, heat transfer and winds, the impacts of Arctic regime shifts are likely to be transmitted to neighbouring regions such as Europe, and impact the entire globe through physical, ecological and social connections”, the report says.
The tipping points discussed in the report include the replacement of white ice and snow, which reflect heat back into space, by darker green vegetation or ocean water, which absorbs more heat, higher releases of methane and changes to ocean circulation and so weather patterns around the globe caused by an influx of melting snow and ice.
Major impacts inevitable?
Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and co-chair of the five-year study said in a statement: “If multiple regime shifts reinforce each other, the results could be potentially catastrophic.… The variety of effects that we could see means that Arctic people and policies must prepare for surprise. We also expect that some of those changes will destabilize the regional and global climate, with potentially major impacts”.
The report stresses that many of the changes and feedback effects in process are poorly understood and in need of much more research.
“Arctic ecological protection is now a global concern, and worldwide monitoring is inadequate”, the authors write.
Political “regime shift”?
To reduce the risk of these tipping points, strong action would have to be taken to mitigate climate change, the authors conclude. Aha. Now there’s the rub.
In the Guardian, Fiona Harvey notes the report comes at a critical time in politics, with Donald Trump’s announcement this week that he plans to take away NASA’s budget for climate science and put it into space exploration. She quotes Marcus Carson of the SEI, co-editor of the report:
“That would be a huge mistake…It would be like ripping out the aeroplane’s cockpit instruments while you are in mid-flight”.
If Mr. Trump also makes good his pledge to revive the US coal industry and abandon the Paris Climate Agreement, the chances of halting warming and the climate feedback mechanisms which could spell disaster would seem to be melting away along with that Arctic ice. Not so tasty food for thought this weekend. Well, I could distract myself by getting out the lawnmower. It has been so warm here this week the birds are chirping like spring and the grass has started to grow again.
DateNovember 25, 2016 | 2:55 pm
TagsArctic, Climate, Emissions, ice, Media, NASA, polar bears, research, resilience, science, sea ice, Svalbard, Trump, Warming
Greenland ice holds Cold War peril
It sounds like something from a science-fiction novel or a disaster movie. A hidden city under ice, housing 200 people, complete with hospital, cinema, church and research labs – and powered by a mini nuclear reactor. In fact it is reality and lies below the ice of north-west Greenland. The building of Camp Century was started in 1959, by US army engineers.
The camp was abandoned when the glacier above turned out to be shifting much faster than expected in 1967, threatening to crush the tunneled base below. Pollutants including PCBs, tanks of raw sewage and low-level radioactive coolant from the nuclear reactor were left behind.
“When the waste was deposited there, nobody thought it would get out again”, William Colgan, an assistant professor in the Lassonde School of Engineering at York University in Canada, told AFP. Colgan is co-author of a study published in August: Melting Ice could release frozen Cold War-era waste.
Unfortunately, recent research results have told us that the ice island of Greenland is melting even faster than previously thought. A new study published this week in the journal Science Advances using GPS to help estimate how much Greenland ice is melting, comes to the conclusion it is losing around 40 trillion pounds more ice a year than scientists previously thought. That is around 7.6 percent of a difference.
GPS maps past and future ice loss
Most measurements of ice sheet loss use a satellite that measures changes in gravity, and uses computer simulations to calculate the weight loss of ice. But co-author Michael Bevis of Ohio State University told the news agency AP that a portion of the mass calculated by the satellite as ice mass, is actually made up of rocks, which rise up to replace the ice when it goes. This distorts the picture, giving the impression there is more ice than there actually is.
The new study also reconstructs ice loss from Greenland over millennia and comes to the conclusion that it is the same parts of Greenland – the north-west and the south-east – which are losing most ice today as in the distant past. The authors say this means the rapid ice lost we have seen over the last 20 years is part of a long-term trend, being exacerbated by climate change. Damian Carrington in the Guardian, quotes Christopher Harig from the University of Arizona as an independent scientist not involved in the study:
“The new research happening now really speaks to the question: ‘How fast or how much ice can or will melt by the end of the century?’ As we understand more the complexity of the ice sheets, these estimates have tended to go up. In my mind, the time for urgency about climate change really arrived years ago, and it’s past time our policy reflected that urgency.”
Frozen hazards await release
Coming back to Camp Century – here, and elsewhere in the “frozen North”, a lot of the perils once locked safely inside an icy safe are now lurking ready to emerge when the time comes. Colgan led a study published in August in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which found that higher temperatures could eventually result in toxic waste from the base being released into the environment. By 2090 the amount of ice melting may no longer be offset by snowfall, meaning the toxic chemicals could start leaking into the environment, the study found. Even before that, fissures in the snow could lead to melt water seeping into the crushed tunnels, currently located just 35 metres below the surface.
This is just one spectacular example of a problem that is widespread across the Arctic. Anthrax spores, nuclear waste from subs and reactors … and these are only the human-made dangers. The permafrost is sometimes described as a “time bomb”, with masses of methane and carbon stored as part of natural processes coming to the surface as the world warms.
The news story on AFP centres on who is responsible for cleaning up the pollution from the under-ice camp. The USA and Denmark signed a treaty to permit the construction of Camp Century, code-named “Project iceworm”. Officially, it was to provide a laboratory for Arctic research projects. AFP says it was also home to a “secret US effort to deploy nuclear missiles”. Maybe it was lucky the project had to be abandoned in 1967. But the legacy remains in the form of the nuclear waste left buried under the snow when the reactor was removed.
We have the technology, but…
Study author William Colgan believes the physical logistics of decontaminating the site may not be the biggest challenge involved in all of this. “The environmental hazard is relatively small and far away and there are only a few native towns close by”, AFP quotes.
I was shocked by this statement, which seems to imply that we don’t need to worry about “a few native towns”. I hope I have misunderstood him here. Surely the lives of these small communities should have top priority?
But I can follow his reasoning that establishing which country is responsible for making good the damage is harder than the actual physical clean-up. (He also mentions that the USA and Denmark have experience in similar clean-up operations around the Thule air base, which is around 240 toxic messes or worrying that all our technology cannot prevent destruction of the fragile Arctic environment if we carry out risky operations?)
A worrying precedent
Colgan says the dispute over responsibility “could help set a precedent for other conflicts arising from climate change”. Now that is a very worrying prospect. Unfortunately, it is also a highly realistic one.
When it comes to accepting responsibility for the climate change which is speeding up the melting of Greenland’s huge ice-sheet – and taking action to halt it by abandoning fossil fuels – conflicts are virtually pre-programmed.
When it comes to the costs of dealing with the migration of people forced out of their homes by sea-level rise, flooding, drought, and of ensuring progress for developing countries without climate-harming fossil fuels, states are unlikely to be queuing up to foot the bill.
DateSeptember 26, 2016 | 12:47 pm
TagsArctic, Camp Century, Climate, Cold War, Emissions, Greenland, ice, nuclear, permafrost, research, science, Sea level, toxic waste, USA, Warming