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Arctic birds breeding earlier

Ornithologist checking nests at Arctic Zackenberg, Greenland (IQ)

Ornithologist checking nests at Arctic Zackenberg, Greenland (IQ)

Migratory birds that breed in the Arctic are starting to nest earlier in spring because the snow melt is occurring earlier in the season. This is confirmed by a new collaborative study,”Phenological advancement in arctic bird species: relative importance of snow melt and ecological factors” published in the current online edition of the journal Polar Biology. The scientists, including Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) biologists, looked at the nests of four shorebird species and one songbird in Alaska, recording when the first eggs were laid in the nests. The work was undertaken across four sites ranging from the oilfields of Prudhoe bay to the remote National Petroleum Reserve of western Arctic Alaska.

The scientists looked at nesting plots at different intervals in the early spring. Other variables, like the abundance of nest predators (which is thought to affect the timing of breeding) and satellite measurements of “greenup” (the seasonal flush of the new growth of vegetation) in the tundra were also assessed as potential drivers, but were found to be less important than snow melt.

Lead author Joe Liebezeit from the Audubon Society of Portland says “it seems clear that the timing of the snow melt in Arctic Alaska is the most important mechanism driving the earlier and earlier breeding dates we observed in the Arctic. The rates of advancement in earlier breeding are higher in Arctic birds than in other temperate bird species, and this accords with the fact that the Arctic climate is changing at twice the rate.”

Over nine years, the birds advanced their nesting by an average of 4-7 days. The researcher says this fits with the general observation of 0.5 days per year observed in other studies of nest initiation in the Arctic, of which, they say, there are not very many. The rates of change are much higher than those of observed in studies of temperate birds south of the Arctic.

Co-author Steve Zack from WCS says “Migratory birds are nesting earlier in the changing Arctic, presumably to track the earlier springs and abundance of insect prey. Many of these birds winter in the tropics and might be compromising their complicated calendar of movements to accommodate this change. We’re concerned that there will be a threshold where they will no longer be able to track the emergence of these earlier springs which may impact breeding success or even population viability”.

WCS Beringia Program Coordinator Martin Robards says “Everything is a moving target in the Arctic because of the changing climate. Studies like these are valuable in helping us understand how wildlife is responding to the dramatic changes in the Arctic ecosystem. The Arctic is so dramatically shaped by ice, and it is impressive how these long-distance migrants are breeding in response to the changes in the timing of melting ice.”

In connection with Migratory Bird Day some time ago,  I talked to Ferdinand Spina, head of Science at Italy’s National Institute for Wildlife Protection and Research ISPRA, in Bologna, Italy. He is also in charge of the Italian bird ringing centre, and Chair of the Scientific Council of the UN Convention on Migratory Species, CMS. In the interview, he stressed that climate change is becoming one of the greatest threats to birds that breed in the Arctic.

“Birds are a very important component of wildlife in the Arctic. There are different species breeding in the Arctic. The Arctic is subject to huge risks due to global warming. It is crucially important that we conserve such a unique ecosystem in the world. Birds have adapted to living in the Arctic over millions of years of evolution, and it’s a unique physiological and feeding adaptation. And it is our duty to conserve the Arctic as one of the few if not the only ecosystems which is still relatively intact in the world. This is a major duty we have from all possible perspectives, including an ethical and moral duty, ” he says.  We talked about the seasonal mismatch, when birds arrive too early or too late to find the insects they expect to encounter and need to feed their young.

Zackenberg Station from the air (IQ)

Zackenberg Station from the air (IQ)

This reminds me of a visit to Zackenberg station in eastern Greenland in 2009. At that time,  Lars Holst Hansen, the deputy station leader, told me the long-tailed skuas were not breeding because they rely on lemmings as prey. The lemmings were scarce because of changes in the snow cover.

Jeroen Reneerkens is another regular visitor to Zackenberg, as he tracks the migration of sanderlings between Africa and Greenland. A great project and an informative website!

Jeroen with sanderlings at Zackenberg

Jeroen with sanderlings at Zackenberg

 Morten Rasch from the Arctic Environment Dept of Aarhus University in Denmark is the coordinator of one of the most ambitious ecological monitoring programmes in the Arctic. The Greenland Environment Monitoring Programme includes 2 stations, Zackenberg, which is in the High Arctic region and Nuuk, Greenland’s capital, in the “Lower” Arctic. Hansen and other members of Rasch’s teams monitor 3,500 different parameters in a cross-disciplinary project, combining biology, geology, glaciology, all aspects of research into the fragile eco-systems of the Arctic. At that time, he told me during an interview,  ten years of monitoring had already come up with worrying results:

“We have experienced that temperature is increasing, we have experienced an increasing amount of extreme flooding events in the river, we have experienced that phenology of different species at the start-up of their growing season or the appearance of different  insects for instance now comes at least 14 days earlier than when we started. And for some species, even one month earlier. And that’s a lot.  You have to realise the entire growing season in these areas is only 3 months. When we start up at Zackenberg in late May, or the beginning of June, the ecosystem is completely covered in snow and more or less frozen, and when we leave, in normal years – or BEFORE climate change took over – then we left around 1st September and the ecosystem actually started to freeze up.  So the entire biological ecosystem only has 3 months to reproduce and so on. And in relation to that, a movement in the start of the system between 14 days and one month – that’s a lot.”

Listen to my radio feature: Changing Arctic, Changing World

I can’t write about birds and climate change in the Arctic without finishing off with a mention of George Divoky,  an ornithologist whose bird-monitoring has actually turned into climate-change monitoring on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. George looks after a colony of Black Guillemots and spends his summer on the island. In recent years, he has taken to putting up bear-proof nest boxes for the birds, because polar bears increasingly come to visit, as the melting of the sea ice has reduced their hunting options. He has also observed the presence of new types of birds which die not previously come this far north.

 

At Zackenberg, Greenland

Happy family  at Zackenberg, Greenland (IQ)

Date

June 26, 2014 | 9:44 am

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Climate talks at glacial place?

iceblogger iq

Who would have believed it? It has been a long time since the routine UN climate talks in Bonn aroused much in the way of enthusiasm. Frustration or even despair were more likely the order of the day.

Since the debacle in Copenhagen in 2009, it has been hard to stir up any kind of optimism in the climate debate. The planet is heating up, CO2 emissions are still on the increase, the ice caps are melting, storms, floods and droughts are causing huge problems even for wealthy, industrialized nations.

At the same time the UN negotiations have been slithering along at glacial pace. One upon a time, that meant very slow. But with increasing warming, even the ice giants are on the move. The sea level is rising – and maybe even the UN climate talks are sliding into motion.

A glimmer of hope from the climate sinners?

In recent years, the UN summer meetings on the banks of the Rhine were at best good to fill a hole on a news-slack day. This time, it was different. Just before the talks started, US President Barack Obama got the “snowball” rolling with his announcement he would use the Environmental Protection Agency to impose tough restrictions on emissions from coal power plants.

It’s time for innovative solutions all round. Extreme weather at home has taught America to fear climate change. Obama wants climate action to be his legacy. That can only be a good thing for all of us.

Pam Pearson, Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative told me people in her home state Florida are more Aware of teh importance of the polar ice.

Pam Pearson, Director of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative told me people in her home state Florida are more aware of  the importance of the polar ice. (Pic: IQ)

When China then came out with the intention to cap its emissions, the world really had to sit up and take notice. Even the to-ing and fro-ing on how, why and when, or whether it was just the “personal opinion” of a high-ranking climate representative could not dampen the enthusiasm. For the first time ever, it looks as if the world’s two biggest emitters could actually be prepared to act.

Meanwhile more encouraging signs came out of India and Latin America.

Renewables on the ‘up’

At the start of the Bonn talks, a broad coalition of environment, human rights, indigenous and women’s groups demonstrated outside the conference venue for a worldwide switch to renewable energies. By the end of the talks, 60 countries had signaled support for a 100 percent switch by 2050. German Environment Minister Barbara Hendricks had to admit Germany was not making its targets right now, but would introduce new measures to reach its ambitious goal of a 40 percent emissions reduction by 2020.

If the EU could also bring itself to increase its targets and regain its old position as a climate leader, if the energy crisis caused by the Ukraine dispute could convince politicians that renewable energy is the key to energy security and independence, Europe could well be on its way to hosting a conference that will give birth to a new global agreement.

And even if the UN structures cannot move fast enough: renewable energies are on the rise. UNEP figures show more investment in renewables in the last year than in oil, coal and gas together. Even outside the UN context governments, companies and consumers are finding reason enough to reduce fossil fuel consumption. All is not yet lost for the melting icecaps. The climate snowball is gathering speed.

(I.Quaile)

(I.Quaile)

Date

June 16, 2014 | 9:37 am

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Keeping Greenland in focus

Greenland ice wall

The Greenland ice sheet, photographed 2009 (I.Quaile)

Two interesting publications relating to Greenland caught my eye over the past few days. But it has not proved easy to get them onto the international news agenda. Given the huge importance of the Greenland ice sheet to the planet’s future, this is frustrating to say the least. Fortunately there is the Ice Blog.

The first research relates to a study about the role of ash from fires in bringing about large-scale surface melting. The other predicts Greenland will be a far greater contributor to sea rise than expected.

Let me start with the latter, published in Nature Geoscience. Scientists from the University of California – Irvine and NASA glaciologists have found previously uncharted long deep valleys under the Greenland Ice Sheet. Since these bedrock canyons are well below sea level, they are much more vulnerable to warm ocean waters than previously thought. When warmer Atlantic water hits the fronts of hundreds of glaciers, the edges will erode much further than previously assumed, releasing far greater amounts of water.

Ice melt from the subcontinent has already accelerated, as warmer marine currents have migrated north, the authors say. Older models predicted that once higher ground was reached in a few years, the ocean-induced melting would halt. Greenland’s frozen mass would stop shrinking, and its effect on higher sea waters would be curtailed.

“That turns out to be incorrect. The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice,” says lead author Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist, on the university website. “This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”

IMG_1172

Icebergs from a Greenland glacier melt on.. (I.Quaile)

To obtain the results, Morlighem developed what he says is a breakthrough method that for the first time offers a comprehensive view of Greenland’s entire periphery. It’s nearly impossible to accurately survey at ground level the subcontinent’s rugged, rocky subsurface, which descends as much as 3 miles beneath the thick ice cap.

Since the 1970s, limited ice thickness data has been collected via radar pinging of the boundary between the ice and the bedrock. Along the coastline, though, rough surface ice and pockets of water cluttered the radar sounding, so large swaths of the bed remained invisible.

Measurements of Greenland’s topography have tripled since 2009, thanks to NASA Operation IceBridge flights. But Morlighem says he quickly realized that while that data provided a fuller picture than the earlier radar readings, there were still major gaps between the flight lines.

To reveal the full subterranean landscape, he designed a novel “mass conservation algorithm” that combined the previous ice thickness measurements with information on the velocity and direction of its movement and estimates of snowfall and surface melt.

The difference was dramatic, says Morlighem. What appeared to be shallow glaciers at the very edges of Greenland are actually long, deep fingers stretching more than 100 kilometers (almost 65 miles) inland.

“We anticipate that these results will have a profound and transforming impact on computer models of ice sheet evolution in Greenland in a warming climate,” the researchers conclude.

“Operation IceBridge vastly improved our knowledge of bed topography beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet,” said co-author Eric Rignot of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This new study takes a quantum leap at filling the remaining, critical data gaps on the map.”

Other co-authors are Jeremie Mouginot of UC Irvine and Helene Seroussi and Eric Larour of JPL. Funding was provided by NASA.

This is the same team that reported on accelerated glacial melt in West Antarctica, as discussed in an earlier Ice Blog post.  Together, the papers “suggest that the globe’s ice sheets will contribute far more to sea level rise than current projections show,” Rignot said.

Indeed. These scientists are telling us the IPCC forecasts were way too low. This could have huge consequences for coastal communities all around the globe.

Unfortunately, a lot of people (even those you would expect to know better) tend to mix up “Arctic” and “Antarctic”. It all goes into the category of “melting ice”, and they think they have heard it all before. What they still don’t realize is that this is something that concerns us all, and that these two polar areas are of huge significance to the world climate as a whole and global sea level. When those two Antarctic studies were released, there was a flurry of news coverage. The challenge for us journalists is how to follow this up and stop the attention curve from dropping.

Plodding on... (I.Quaile)

Plodding on… (I.Quaile)

The other interesting piece of recent Greenland research was conducted by the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering and the Desert Research Institute and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences. It concludes that ash from Northern hemisphere forest fires combined with rising temperatures to cause large-scale surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet in 1889 and 2012.

The researchers say their findings contradict conventional thinking that the melting was driven by warming alone.

The findings suggest that continued climate change will result in nearly annual widespread melting of the ice sheet’s surface by the year 2100.

Melting in the dry snow region does not contribute to sea level rise, but when the meltwater percolates into the snowpack and refreezes, the surface is less reflective. This reduces the albedo.

Let me give the (almost) last word to the study’s lead author Kaitlin Keegan.

“With both the frequency of forest fires and warmer temperatures predicted to increase with climate change, widespread melt events are likely to happen much more frequently in the future”.

It figures.

 

Date

May 23, 2014 | 2:39 pm

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Ukraine’s shadow on Arctic cooperation

 

Ilulissat

Ice in shadow on an Arctic summer night (I.Quaile)

When a meeting of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council scheduled to take place in Canada in June was cancelled, one couldn’t help assuming the political standoff between Russia, on the one side, and the US and other European partners on the other over Ukraine must have played a role. The Arctic Council Secretariat, based in Tromsoe in Norway, was keen to play down any political implications. In response to my inquiry, I was told the meeting had been rescheduled in form of teleconferences and written exchanges, and various meetings of Council working groups and task forces were going ahead in the coming weeks in Canada and in other Arctic Council member states. Business as usual? When Canada, which currently holds the chair of the Arctic Council, boycotted a working meeting of the organization planned for April in Moscow, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq called it a “principled stand” against Russian actions in Ukraine.

On other levels, the political repercussions of the Ukraine crisis for the Arctic are undisputed. A statement from the US State Department reads:

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the US government has taken a number of actions, to include curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis”.

And that includes Arctic-related events. In Alaska Dispatch, Yereth Rosen reports the withdrawal of State Department funding for a hazard-reduction workshop planned for June between Russian scientists and their US counterparts. He also notes the head of Russia’s emergency services failed to show up at an international meeting in the US state last month.

With the West looking to broaden sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine dispute, relations between the two factions are bound to be strained in a region where climate change has set off a highly competitive race for oil, gas and other resources.

Defending Arctic interests

While careful to secure their own business interests, the USA plans to block exports of oil and gas technology for new projects run by Russian state-controlled companies, if the Kremlin interferes with the Presidential elections planned to take place in Ukraine on May 25th.

“Depriving Rosneft and Gazprom of the most modern technology would be a significant setback for their ambitions in the areas that are the future of the Russian industry, including the Arctic”, writes Ed Crooks in the Financial Times of May 14th.

Well before the annexation of Crimea, Moscow made no bones about its intention to defend its energy and other economic interests in the Arctic region. President Putin has made it a strategic priority, re-establishing Soviet airfields and ports and preparing a strategic military command to be set up in the Russian Arctic by the end of this year.

Melting ice, easier access, disputed claims (I.Quaile)

Melting ice, easier access, disputed claims (I.Quaile)

Territorial claims

Russia, the only non-NATO coastal Arctic state, holds more Arctic territory than any of the other seven Arctic nations. It also lays claim before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to an extension of its own shelf, including the huge seabed area of the Lomonosov Ridge. Other countries that have claims on the Arctic seabed include Canada, Denmark,  Norway, and the United States.

In March this year, the Commission approved Russia’s longstanding claim to 52,000 square kilometers of seabed in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean, believed to be rich in oil and gas. At the time, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoy told journalists the UN decision was also “the first step in our Arctic applications, which will be ready in the near future.”

The Times Moscow correspondent Ben Hoyle responded with the headline “Russia’s legal land grab is dress rehearsal for Arctic showdown”.

A matter for NATO?

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year called for the USA and Canada to take up a united stand in response to Moscow’s military build-up in the Arctic .

According to the TTU online newsletter on defense and strategy, pressure is mounting on the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to abandon opposition to making the Arctic a part of NATO’s official agenda.

Harper would prefer to see the bilateral North American Aerospace Defense Command NORAD extended to forces on land and on sea. The defense experts say the Harper administration is at the same time using the Ukrainian conflict to re-gain geostrategic influence at a time where Russia is building up a strong maritime position in the Arctic.

The defense publication quotes international political risk research consultancy Polarisk Analytics however as saying extending NORAD’S powers would mean keeping up the old block mentality. That would not guarantee sufficient stability to attract private western investment in the Arctic.

Including the Arctic in NATO’s official agenda would provoke a counterproductive escalation, which could have a lasting destabilizing effect on Arctic cooperation and lead to confrontations, says Polarisk. They suggest the debate should be conducted within the Arctic Council. But so far, that has remained outside its mandate, focusing instead on environmental protection and health and safety.

Professor Lawson Brigham of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, former chairman of Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, told Alaska Dispatch “There are enough environmental issues and enough people issues to keep us busy and keep us together”.

He said he hoped tensions would ease enough and US leaders would be “diplomatically adroit enough to pull off one of the goals articulated in White House recent Arctic Strategy implementation plan:  a 2016 “Presidential Arctic Summit”, attended by heads of Arctic nations to mark the Arctic Council’s 20th anniversary.

First, let’s see how the next Arctic Council SAO meeting in Yellowknife, Canada this autumn works out. Given that the chair of the Council goes to the USA in 2015, it seems unlikely that the long shadow of the ongoing Ukrainian conflict will become shorter any time soon.

 

 

 

Date

May 19, 2014 | 10:32 am

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Cryosphere in Crisis?

Melting...

Melting…

You can’t  say the latest research results on the thinning of the West Antarctic ice sheet didn’t make the media. From the news agencies through the quality media and even publications not known for their detailed science or environment coverage – nearly all reported that two separate studies each independently come to the conclusion that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet are already “collapsing”. They say this could result in a considerable sea level rise within the next century or two. This would have devastating consequences for low-lying coastal areas around the globe.

No-one can really say they didn’t know about this. For once, the Antarctic ice has made into the headlines of the mainstream media. This is the region people tend to think of as having “eternal ice”, where global warming will “not make much difference”. There are those who criticize the media for sensationalism or exaggeration by taking over the term “collapse” for a process which will still take hundreds to thousands of years. See for example Andrew Revkin’s post on Dot Earth (New York Times), (and an excellent response by Tom Yulsman in ImaGeo: (Discover Magazine). But, semantic discussions apart – as Yulsman puts it:

“On a human timescale, 200 years or more for the start of rapid disintegration is a very long time indeed. But on a geologic timescale, it is the blink of an eye. And that’s important to keep in mind too — that in a blazing flash, geologically speaking, we humans are managing to remake the life support systems of our entire planet. This is why I think today’s news may eventually be seen as having historic significance”. At any rate, he concludes “it is yet another clear sign that human-caused changes to the planet once regarded as theoretical are now very real”.

Indeed Tom. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Has it set the alarm bells ringing? Did anybody see a rash of reactions promising quick action on reducing emissions to mitigate climate change? If so, please point me in the right direction. So far, I haven’t seen any indication of anything other than business as usual.

P1010041

The West Antarctic ice sheet contains so much ice that it would raise global sea level by three to four meters if it melted completely. As it sits on bedrock that is below sea level, it is considered particularly vulnerable to warming sea water. Until now, scientists assumed it would take thousands of years for the ice sheet to collapse completely. The two new studies indicate that could happen much faster – as early as 200 years from now or, at the most, 900. Both research teams, using different methods and looking at different parts of the ice sheet, conclude that the trend is probably unstoppable.

The NASA study published in “Geophysical Research Letters” uses data from satellites, planes, ships and measurements from the shelf ice to examine six large glaciers in the Amundsen Sea over the last 20 years. The second report, from the University of Washington published in the journal “Science,” uses computer models to study the Thwaites glacier. It is considered of particular importance because it acts as a type of “lynch pin”, holding back the rest of the ice sheet.

According to NASA researcher Eric Rignot, the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica have “passed the point of no return.” He told journalists this would mean a sea level rise of at least  1.2 meters (3.93 feet) within the next 200 years.The University of Washington scientists worked out, using topographical maps, computer simulations and airborne radar, that the Thwaites glacier is also in an early stage of collapse. They expect it to disappear within several hundred years. That would raise sea levels by around 60 centimeters (23.62 inches). The NASA study showed that sea level rises of 1.2 meters are possible

The good news, according to author Ian Joughlin, is that while the word “collapse” implies a sudden change, the fastest scenario is 200 years, and the longest more than 1,000 years. The bad news, he adds, is that such a collapse may be inevitable: “Previously, when we saw thinning we didn’t necessarily know whether the glacier could slow down later, spontaneously or through some feedback,” Joughlin says. “In our model simulations it looks like all the feedbacks tend to point toward it actually accelerating over time. There’s no real stabilizing mechanism we can see.”

The latest IPCC report does not adequately factor ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet into its projections for global sea level rise, on account of a lack of data. These “will almost certainly be revised upwards,” according to Sridar Anandakrishnan from Pennsylvania State University at the presentation of the University of Washington study. The scientist was not involved in the research.

NASA glaciologist Rignot said he was taken aback by the speed of the changes. “We feel this is at the point where … the system is in a sort of chain reaction that is unstoppable,” he said.

Rignot also makes the key point that this development tells us not only about the area down at the South Pole, but about the whole climate system: “This system, whether Greenland or Antarctica, is changing on a faster time scale than we anticipated. We are discovering that every day.”

My last two blog posts have been about melting of the Greenland ice sheet and melting even in the East Antarctic, which is usually cited as the last bastion against ice-destroying climate change. We are subjecting our cryosphere to huge pressures and have set a “snowball” rolling, which is picking up momentum and will ultimately carry masses of ice into a rising ocean.

Rignot says even drastic measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions could not prevent the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. That is a terribly depressing thought.  I would like to think this will prove wrong. But if there is any chance to avert that disaster and preserve our polar ice for thousands of years rather than just a few hundred, surely the time for action is now?

 

 

Date

May 14, 2014 | 2:46 pm

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