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Jeffrey Simpson

As the sea ice melts, so melts the Arctic Add to ...

The Harper government, to its credit, put in a great deal of money to fund Canada's participation in the International Polar Year, 2007-2008. For a government that doesn't like talking about climate change and has among its supporters many who don't think the Earth is warming, the results might be disturbing.

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Everywhere in the Arctic, things are changing rapidly as sea ice melts and thins, water and air heat up, tundra warms, vegetation alters and climate patterns shift. (This, of course, isn't just happening in the Arctic.)

The findings from the International Polar Year research are starting to arrive. They have been assembled by more than 160 endorsed science projects from researchers in more than 60 countries, operating with a budget of more than $400-million. Many of Canada's best Arctic scientists, including David Hik of the University of Alberta, were involved, and still are.

Perhaps the most stunning finding concerned sea ice. From 2000 to 2010, about two million square kilometres of sea ice melted. That loss was preceded by two previous decades in which less than a million square kilometres was lost. In other words, sea ice loss accelerated dramatically in the 2000-2010 period. In addition, areas of first-year thin ice also declined markedly.

In Greenland, "the rate of ice loss is growing," the scientists reported, "thus raising sea levels." In the Arctic regions of Canada and Russia, vegetation is changing as trees and shrubs move farther north, with attendant insects. These movements are affecting caribou herds in the Northwest Territories and Yukon, disrupting traditional feeding and calving grounds so that a ban on hunting has been imposed on some traditional territories, a story that doesn't get any southern Canadian media coverage but is big news in parts of the Far North.

As the permafrost warms, chances increase that pools of carbon previously trapped in the frozen permafrost will be released. Much more ominous will be the release of methane in the warming permafrost, since methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

In other words, there are accelerating warming trends that feed into others that have been confirmed by scientists during the International Polar Year. To wit, more water instead of ice means more reflected sunlight, which, in turn, contributes to warming, which then causes more melting ice, and so on. To wit, more warming of permafrost changes patterns of animal and insect behaviour, and releases more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. These gases, in turn, produce more warming. The scientists confirmed that the permafrost melt accelerates, in turn, when sea ice disappears and is replaced by open water.

An instructive map developed by the scientists shows more persistent high-pressure systems over the Arctic that, in turn, push colder, wetter weather down the eastern portion of North America, starting with Newfoundland (as if it needs colder, wetter weather) and running south.

It will take at least another year to collate, analyze and publish more of the material collected in the International Polar Year. In 2012, a conference of more than 3,000 people is scheduled for Montreal; the Russians have proposed that the International Polar Year be replaced by the International Polar Decade.

The irony in all this is starkly apparent for Canadians. Few countries, if any, are seeing their geography so altered so rapidly by climate change, yet Ottawa, having done a fine job funding research, doesn't seem interested in a serious national effort to reduce the emissions that cause global warming. It has a greenhouse-gas reduction target of a 17-per-cent drop by 2020 that no serious analyst thinks can be met with existing policies.

The effects of warming are not exactly under the noses of most Canadians, because they are most dramatic in the Arctic, where few Canadians venture. The Arctic is too remote, forbidding and foreign for most Canadians to think much about. It's out of sight and out of mind, a bit like the whole issue for the government.

 

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