The Cold Edge
The Cold Edge
Our planet’s ice is melting at a staggering pace. Inquire reports on the race to save the Arctic.
Words & Pictures by Dave Walsh
I write this in the final days of August 2012. The National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado have already broken the news. The Arctic Ocean’s ice cover has dropped below 3.7 million square kilometers. This level is well below the 2007 extent; the previous minimum record since satellite records began in 1979. In short, Arctic ice is melting incredibly quickly.
Nearly four million square kilometers, sounds like a lot of ice, much more than you or I can visualize. It represents, however, just two thirds of what was covering the Arctic at the same time of year only six years ago and just 25% of the 1980’s cover. Respected researchers on the issue, like Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, have long predicted that there may be no summer sea ice at all in the Arctic within a decade. A few years ago, his predictions were ridiculed. Today, they seem inevitable.
Rising global temperatures are dramatically increasing the melting of Arctic sea ice, causing the ocean to become exposed. Ice would usually reflect much sunlight back into space – an important defense mechanism for the planet and it’s life – but exposed seawater absorbs the sun’s rays and is warmed by it, causing yet more ice to melt.
The loss of this sea ice is bad news. Not least for the creatures that live on it but also for us humans. As Prof. Mark Maslin of University College London reported in the last issue of Inquire Magazine, with less ice to keep the Arctic environment stable, weather patterns will continue to destabilize and volatile storm systems are expected to become ever more common. The knock-on effects will be global, although felt hardest in the south; poorer countries will take much of the impact.
Yet for most of us, caught up in the headaches, stresses, and diversions of daily life, what happens in the Arctic can stay in the Arctic and the loss of sea ice has little to do with us. The global media are beginning to wake up but often the reporting of changes in the Arctic are confusing, hysterical or incorrect. In July for instance, it was widely reported that Greenland’s ice sheets were melting but the coverage was confusing and inconsistent. In reality however, 97% of Greenland’s gigantic freshwater ice sheet is experiencing melting; more than ever before recorded. If the ice sheet were to suddenly melt, the world’s oceans would rise by a catastrophic seven meters. That might grab our attention. In reality the melting process is slower but even at current rates it is becoming a major contributor to global sea level rises.
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Some people however see the vanishing ice as good news and good business. The shipping industry is already pouncing upon previously closed Arctic seaways so that it can ship goods between the Atlantic and the Pacific faster and at lower cost. Meanwhile, the oil industry – currently led by Shell – wants to drill in dangerous deep-water areas previously covered in thick ice; for more black stuff to burn in our cars and factories. The exploitation of Arctic oil would be even more negative considering that its usage would keep contributing to climate change and the loss of yet more sea ice.
Experts – including environmentalists and key business leaders – have warned that an oil spill would be near impossible to clean up in the Arctic and would have catastrophic effects on ecosystems. The Arctic has however, found an unusual ally in the form of Lloyds of London – the world’s largest insurance broker. In a recent report, the company warned of “multiple obstacles” and “hard to manage risks” of drilling for oil in the region. The detailed report also singles out a potential oil spill as the “greatest risk in terms of environmental damage, potential cost and insurance.” Indeed, energy companies who are already operating in the region have come under fire for having very little in terms of contingency plans in the event of an Arctic deep-water spill. Campaign groups like Greenpeace have stated that companies such as Shell are completely unprepared for a spill in the inhospitable and freezing waters.
Photography from the planet’s frozen regions have the power to inspire and excite us all, but for most of the seven billion people on Earth, the Arctic and Antarctic remain abstract and unreachable places. Unless you live in a Nordic country, Greenland, or some remote section of Russia, Alaska, or Canada, the Arctic is probably not part of your life. Unless you’re a scientist or polar support staff, the Antarctic is even less likely to intrude on your daily thoughts.
Yet, over the past few years, the Arctic has become a huge part of my life and I have been lucky enough to spend much time aboard Greenpeace ships reporting back to the ‘real world’ – usually about something that’s going terribly wrong. In the Southern Ocean, it was about the Japanese whaling fleet, archaically intent on slaughtering several hundred minke whales every southern summer. In the north, it was the effects of humanity’s CO2 emissions; the acceleration of major outlet glaciers in Greenland, the vanishing sea ice, or the acidification of our oceans.
I have been fortunate enough to sail to the far north and even further south; to experience the serenity and ferocity of the world’s oceans and polar regions – and to realize – often with a slap in the face – how finite and tiny our planet really is. Along the way I became a polar junky; intoxicated by the wild imaginarium of ice, frozen land and exotic animals. Initially it was the romantic intrigue – the myth of the explorer, the pioneer, of boldly going where few have ventured; and for a while, it was enough. To bask in and celebrate the beauty was all I wanted.
It seems that when we are pummeled with remote, abstract bad news about which we can apparently do nothing about, it only serves to make us feel dis-empowered. We switch off and return to some task that doesn’t seem insurmountable. And yet, there are signs that we are, at last, starting to grasp how badly we are fouling our nest, how each and every act of ours has repercussions elsewhere, and how we must adapt and act on a global scale.
Campaigning organizations realize much of this and seek to empower people to take action to protect the polar regions. The Antarctic continent, for instance, is protected (for now) by a series of treaties, including a 1991 agreement that prevents all resource exploitation. The surrounding ocean is sadly not so protected, but the Antarctic Ocean Alliance is campaigning for a network of marine reserves in the Southern Ocean, to protect its biodiversity, and some 90,000 people have jumped on board with the idea.
But in the north the story is less positive. Arctic countries are intent on exploiting the opportunity that freshly melted ice presents and swiftly slicing up the spoils.Whether it’s for the oil companies or for the taxpayers depends on the individual country; and on your own level of cynicism.
Greenpeace, for its part, wants to convince the world that the Arctic is everyone’s and not merely for the profits of big business. Sara Ayech is a campaigner and blogger reporting from Greenpeace’s icebreaker ship, the Arctic Sunrise. She recently wrote, “The Arctic is the canary in the coalmine of global warming: It is the first, most visible and most dramatic impact; but although distant to most of us, it will affect us all.” She also highlighted recent examples that are linked the ongoing changes in the Arctic. “This summer’s weather occurrences – droughts in the US, months of rain in Europe – were caused by the jet stream which may be changing with Arctic melting. As we move towards ice free summers – possibly within the next decade – weather patterns will change in ways we do not yet know.”
More than 1.7 million people have already agreed with Greenpeace’s stance and have signed up to their ‘Save the Arctic’ campaign. As the movement spreads and the ice continues to melt at a rate of over 40,000 sq. km per day, a race has begun in the Arctic.
Greenpeace activists and independent scientists sail aboard the Arctic Sunrise on a mission to explore, witness and protest, whilst Danish, Russian, and American energy companies move in to start dangerous deep-water oil drilling operations to make billions at the expense of nature and our climate. Meanwhile, corporate lobbyists, campaigners, and lawmakers debate new legislation that could protect this fragile ecosystem or doom it. The battle to Save the Arctic has truly begun.
A collection of photographs from the Arctic and Antarctic will be exhibited by Dave Walsh at the Copper House Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, from the 13th to the 29th of September 2012.
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