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Climate change back on the agenda?

Melting ice, off Greenland

Melting ice, off  Greenland (I.Quaile)

Trawling the media for climate-related stories over the weekend, I began to see some signs that the message might be getting across after all. I had just put the finishing touches to my story on “Why we don’t want to hear about climate change“, based on interviews with sociologist Kari Marie Norgaard from the University of Oregon and psychologist Per Stoknes from the Norwegian Business school, when I heard US Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that the USA and China would be cooperating and exchanging data in the run-up to the 2015 Paris climate talks, where a new climate deal is supposed to be agreed. I found myself feeling just a little bit more optimistic. If these two key players really put climate protection into action, maybe we will be able to get somewhere. A report on a study by the Chinese government on the disastrous air pollution in Beijing is not happy reading, but gives grounds to assume the Chinese government has to be serious about taking emissions in hand.

Arctic ambassador – a sign of the times?

Another announcement by the US Sec of State leaves me with mixed feelings. There is going to be a US ambassador for the Arctic. On the one hand, it is always good to see the Arctic getting attention. On the other hand, the motivation does not make me jump for joy. An item from the news agency AFP writes of “a region increasingly coveted by several countries for its oil and other raw materials”. Indeed. That is the worrying bit. In case you missed it, (the Arctic announcement did not get huge coverage), Kerry said in his statement:

“The Arctic region is the last global frontier and a region with enormous and growing geostrategic, economic, climate, environment and national security implications for the United States and the world…President Obama and I are committed to elevating our attention and effort to keep up with the opportunities and consequences presented by the Arctic’s rapid transformation – a very rare convergence of almost every national priority in the most rapidly-changing region on the face of the Earth”. It is good to see climate and environment get a mention at least.

A (sled) dog's life? (Greenland. I.Quaile)

A (sled) dog’s life? (Greenland. I.Quaile)

A “Stern” warning

The Guardian had a guest article by Nicholas Stern, the author of that famous Stern Report on the economics of climate change back in 2006 (yes, it really is that long ago).The background to this, of course, is the wild weather in the UK. Now I do not wish that kind of weather on anyone, but in terms of drawing attention to climate change it has certainly been very important. Stern writes “The record rainfall and storm surges that have brought flooding across the UK are a clear sign that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change”. He makes a clear case for linking the two. He also brings in the other extreme weather around the globe, including Australia, Argentina and Brazil and the devastating typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines last year. Stern has clear advice for the politicians:

“This is a pattern of global change that it would be very unwise to ignore.” Stern says the risks are even bigger than when he wrote the 2006 report. “Since then, annual greenhaouse gas emissions have increased steeply and some of the impacts, such as the decline of Arctic sea ice, have started to happen much more quickly.”

I hope a lot of decision-makers and influential business people have read or will still read Stern’s article. He calls for rapid action and investment. He has a clear message for the European Union, currently not the most popular international organisation with the British government. “The UK whould work with the rest of the EU to create a unified and much better functioning energy market and power grid structure. ‘this would also increase energy security, lower costs and reduce emissions. What better was is there to bring Europe together?” Other measures recommended would be to implement a “strong price on greenhouse gas pollution across the economy”. This, remember, is a renowned economist, not an environmental campaigner. He also warns against the temptation to cut overseas aid to fund adaptation to climate change. “It would be deeply immoral to penalise the 1.2 billion people around the world who libve in extreme poverty…In fact, the UK should be increasing aid to poor countries to help them develop economically in a climate that is becoming more hostile largely because of past emissions by rich countries”- Yes. Yes. Yes.

Don’t let the weather distract from your climate awareness!

The other piece of writing which inspired me over the weekend was in the ImaGeo blog by Tom Yulsman: “Move over polar vortex“. He looks at the new analysis produced by the UK’s Met Office:

“If a new scientific analysis is correct, the repeated bouts of extreme weather on either side of the Atlantic are indeed unusual – and both are manifestations of a chain of climatic teleconnections that reach half way around the globe and all the way to the tropics”.

There is a lot of talk in this piece of whether the polar vortex is weak (as discussed in my article More Arctic Weather in a Warming World?) Or actually “particularly intense”. I would recommend you read Tom’s blog for yourselves for the details and his views. But the insight I would leave you with here as “food for thought” is where he quotes a paper in the journal Science.

“They conclude that the recent discourse focusing on the possible connections between winter weather and climate change distracts from the bigger issue: that is, regardless of extreme winter weather, climate change is undoubtedly real, and that harsh winters are not what we really need to be concerned about going forward as the climate continues to change”.

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Begich Boggs, Alaska 2008. No glacier in sight! (I.Quaile)

 

People love to talk about the weather. But if we use every instance of unusual weather to question the overall trend of global warming, with all the complex effects that has on our climate, winds, oceans etc, we run the risk of losing a necessary sense of urgency when it comes to reducing emissions. I am reminded, as I often am, of a young climate ambassador from the Netherlands during a fact-finding trip to Alaska in 2008. As we stood at the Visitor’s Centre for a glacier which is now no longer visible from that spot because it has retreated so far, he said that just brought home to him how “everything is connected”. Our everyday lifestyle in the industrialised world is melting the Arctic ice – and that, in turn, is contributing to the changing climate patterns which can radically alter the planet.

Date

February 17, 2014 | 3:20 pm

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Arctic infrastructure cannot keep pace

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

The Russian response to Greenpeace’s protest at the Arctic Prirazlomnoye oil rig made it clear to a lot of people that in spite of  environmental concerns, the commercialization of the region is proceeding “full speed ahead”and enjoying top political priority. The controversial rig went into production at the end of the last year. Shipping has also increased dramatically in Arctic waters in the last few years, with international freight companies using the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast to transport gas and other commodities. This reduces the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers, compared with the usual route via the Suez Canal. Tourism  is also on the up, with an increasing number of cruise ships making their way through Arctic waters during the summer months. What happens if one of these ships sinks? When the Costa Concordia cruise ship hit rocks off the italian island of Giglio in January 2012 and tipped onto its side, the risks of this kind of tourism became graphically clear. The thought of something like that happening with an iceberg in the remote regions around Spitsbergen or Greenland doesn’t bear thinking about. But that, of course, is exactly what we have to do with a view to minimising risks for people and the environment.

The Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies  has examined existing infrastructure in the six Arctic coastal states (USA, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Russia). I attended a workshop as a side-event to the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso in January, where the initial results were presented. They should really set the alarm bells ringing.
Kathrin Keil from the IASS Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, looked at developments in the oil and gas sector. She warned that the unpredictability and variability of weather and ice conditions would severely limit the options for responding to an oil accident in the region. The ice cover in May can be between 30 and 90 percent, she explained.
The ice-free period can be as short as one month or as long as nine. To date, there is no adequate technology available to successfully deal with the results of an oil spill in Arctic waters. The Institute also says the ‘Oil Spill Response Plan’ provided by Gazprom for the Prirazlomnoye rig lacks detail. The rig is located close to several nature reserves and Kail warns that these areas would be extremely vulnerable if oil or fuel were to spill. She argues for the tightest possible safety regulations, given that this is the first offshore oil platform to go into operation in the Arctic.
Not enough icebreakers
The existing infrastructure is also inadequate for the increase in Arctic shipping, says Malte Humpert, Executive Director of the Arctic Institute. He says the icebreaker fleet is not big enough to support the growing number of vessels sailing through Arctic regions.
The increase in the number of cruise boats, especially near the Norwegian Spitsbergen archipelago and off the west coast of Greenland, is another cause for concern. If a cruise ship carrying 3,000 people were to collide with an iceberg near the popular tourist town Ilulissat, the existing search and rescue capacity would not be sufficient to cope. The available planes, helicopters and ships would be too few and take too long to reach the accident site, says Arctic Institute’s Marc Jacobsen.

I photographed this ship amongst the icebergs of Ilulissat in 2009

I photographed this ship amongst the icebergs of Ilulissat in 2009

With just 4,500 residents, Ilulissat would be unable to provide adequate medical treatment or shelter for people affected by the crash. Oil and other toxic chemicals dumped by the damaged vessel would be very difficult to clean-up. There is also a shortage of satellite, internet and mobile phone connections, meaning communication would be limited.

Politicians are prepared to take risks
The risks of the increasing commercialization of the Arctic are high on the priority of the region’s politicians, says Magnus Johannesson, Director of the Permanent Secretariat of the Arctic Council . In an interview at his office in Tromsø  he stressed to me the importance of ongoing negotiations aimed at introducing a ‘Polar Code’ to regulate Arctic shipping. It is set to come into effect in 2016. Johannesson also referred to the SAREX exercises conducted in 2013. These simulated a shipping accident to test search and rescue capacity. But Marc Jacobsen from the Arctic Institute says the exercise was too small in scale to provide a realistic picture of readiness. There were only 250 people on the vessel used in the mock accident.
“I think everyone is aware that there could be better infrastructure, but these are the first steps,” Johannesson told me . “The Arctic states are very aware of that and doing their best to speed this up”.
Disaster in the Arctic:  a possibility
Anton Vasiliev, Russia’s ambassador to the Arctic Council, assumes his country will have proper infrastructure in place along the Northern Sea Route within the next few years. Iceland’s Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson also told me in an interview in Tromso he was confident that security and response infrastructure would be improved.
“In the end we are always worried about the ocean around Iceland, so the environment and security matter. The possibility of a disaster in the Arctic is why we are paying so much attention to the region,” he told me. “The attention to the economic potential of the Arctic is growing fast. But I don’t think it is moving so fast that we cannot manage it.”
But environmental groups are increasingly concerned about commerical activity in the Arctic. I noticed a distinct lack of ngo participation at the Arctic Frontiers event this year. The price of conference attendance seeems to be one factor that reduces the number of ngo people attending. On the official programme, it seems only one ngo is officially invited to speak each year. This year, it was WWF’s turn, and Nina Jensen the CEO was on one of the panels.  I interviewed her in Tromso and she told me:  “With the increasing ship traffic, there is a higher risk of accidents and pollution that will impact both humans and wildlife to a very serious extent. We do not know enough about the marine environment to be able to avoid serious impacts. We do not have adequate regulations in place, and there is no sufficient oil spill preparedness.” While she welcomes the Polar Code, she stresses it is only a first step, and fails to tackle issues such as black carbon pollution, invasive species and the use of heavy fuel oil.

She sees a huge discrepancy between the political rhetoric, with politicians all paying lip service to the need for a better infrastructure to protect the fragile Arctic environment, but taking little action to make this happen in time.

We also talked about the huge paradox that is Arctic oil drilling. Climate change is making it possible – and burning oil, in turn, is creating the emissions which cause climate change. The world needs to get away from fossil fuel,  says Jensen. The future of the Arctic  has to be  renewable.

My article on this is on the DW website: Are we prepared for a catastrophe in the Arctic?

Date

February 10, 2014 | 10:13 am

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Greenland glacier at record speed

Ilulissat 2009

Sermeq Kujalleq glacier at Ilulissat (2009) (I.Quaile)

I have been working on a story about whether the Arctic infrastructure would be able to cope with a shipping or oil spill accident, which is increasingly likely to occur as development speeds ahead. During the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, I attended an interesting workshop on the topic, where the organisers, the Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, came to what their experts describe as “worrisome” conclusions. Malte Humpert, Kathrin Keil and Marc Jacobsen presented three incident scenarios involving shipping and oil exploration in the Arctic. Jacobsen’s scenario involved a giant cruise boat with 3000 people on board hitting an iceberg off the West Greenland Coast, near Ilulissat.

In 2009 I was in Ilulissat, working on radio features on climate change in Greenland. This is the Greenland of the tourist brochures, with a constantly changing panorama of icebergs floating past your hotel window – or porthole if you are on a ship. While I was there, the fragility of that beautiful glacier ice was brought home to me.

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also still known by its Danish name “Jakobshavn Isbrae”, is the fastest flowing glacier in Greenland (or Antarctica, these two major ice sources being of key importance to global sea level). The icebergs which create the spectacle floating past the brightly coloured houses of Ilulissat, are breaking off from the glacier. Beautiful to look at, extremely worrying if you think about the background. Back in 2009, scientists were already telling me the glacier was speeding up. Now the latest research published in The Cryosphere (the journal of the European Geosciences Union) confirms that the summer flow of the ice mass has reached a record speed. The scientists, from the University of Washington in Seattle and the German Aerospace Center DLR, say the speeding up in 2013 was 30 to 50 percent higher than previous summers. The scientists analysed satellite images taken every 11 days from early 2009 to spring 2013. Satellite technology plays a key role in observing the ice. Two German radar satellites TerraSAR-X und TanDEM-X provide high resolution data that facilitates precise calculations, according to DLR. One of the authors, Dana Floricioiu from the DLR Earth Observation Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, told journalists it had been striking to see how much the glacier was changing within a very short time.

The researchers found that the glacier’s average speed peaked at 46 metres per day during the summer of 2012. This is the fastest ever recorded for a glacier in Greenland or Antarctica. The big surges take place in summer, but the researchers say the average annual speed of the glacier over the last two years is almost three times what was measured in the 1990s. It is retreating by around 17 kilometres per year. The scientists say these speeds were achieved “as the glacier terminus appears to have retreated to the bottom of an over-deepened basin with a depth of around 1300 m below sea level. The terminus is likely to reach the deepest section of the trough within a few decades, after which it could rapidly retreat to the shallower regions some  50 km farther upstream, potentially by the end of this century”.

The huge volume of ice going into the sea from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is already influencing sea level. The glacier drains around 6 percent of the massive Greenland ice sheet Scientists estimate it added about 1 millimetre to global sea levels from 2000 to 2010. The increased speed of the discharge will exacerbate this further.Badnews for people in low-lying coastal areas around the globe. And this is not the only Greenland glacier melting increasingly.

Summer night in Ilulissat

Summer night in Ilulissat

Coming back to the subject of disaster-preparedness – this glacier is thought to be the source of the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. The Arctic Institute’s scenario indicates that an accident like the “Costa Concordia”, which happened in an easily accessible region with no ice or dangerous weather conditions, would have devastating consequences if it happened, say, off the coast of Ilulissat. Search and rescue, accommodation and medical treatment, lack of transport facilities, poor communications infrastructure, no adequate oil spill response technology for icy waters…. food for thought for companies looking to profit from the changing climate of the Arctic – and the governments that should be responsible for protecting humans, wildlife and that beautiful but fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Photo gallery: Greenland the Ice Island

Date

February 6, 2014 | 12:43 pm

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Why high suicide rates in Arctic Russia?

Norway's Arctic University in Tromso

Norway’s Arctic University in Tromso, location for many international encounters over the last week

Back at DW headquarters in Bonn after returning from Arctic Frontiers in Tromso at the weekend, I am sorting out notes and interviews with a wide range of experts on Arctic issues from all over the world.

One interview I would like to share with you here on the Ice Blog is a talk I had with Dr Yuri Sumarokov from the  Northern State Medical University in Archangelsk in north-west Russia. It is the northernmost medical school in Russia and has a special focus on research into Arctic medicine and issues affecting the health of people in the Arctic.

People in the Arctic regions of Russia have a much higher suicide rate than in other parts of the country. The rate is higher again amongst indigenous people. Sumarakov, himself a medical doctor, shared some insights into the ongoing research with me. The topic is not new and certainly not limited to Russia. It seems though to be a topic that is not talked about enough, especially amongst politicians – and in the media. So let’s make a start. Please have a listen. There is plenty of food for thought and I for one feel motivated to find out a little more:

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Yuri Sumarokov, MD, is Head of the Dept. of International Cooperation at Northern State Medical University (NSMU), Russia.

Date

January 28, 2014 | 1:47 pm

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Kids, POPS and Arctic Science

 

Planetarium at Tromso Science Center of Northern Norway

Planetarium at Tromso Science Center of Northern Norway

Norway, believe it or not, is having problems recruiting scientists and qualified personnel for the Arctic. The generous education system attracts plenty of foreign students, it seems. But there is a lack of Norwegian PhD students. Not that the country doesn’t welcome foreign students, but understandably they would like to have people who stay on in the Norwegian Arctic as well as those who take their qualifications back home to wherever. For that reason, the Arctic Frontiers conference and APECS, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists decided to “start them young” and invited pupils from two local schools to an Arctic science workshop in the planetarium of the Tromso Science Centre, the country’s northernmost. As I arrived, I found myself overtaken by youngsters rushing down to have a look at the gadgetry and a hands-on shot at scientific experiments. This is the kind of place that interests young people in the workings of nature and technology.

Young science "stars" amongst the planetarium stars

Young science “stars” amongst the planetarium stars

Kirsten and Ida talked to me (in English, great language skills) about their project. They had made a poster of the type displayed at scientific conferences. Their subject: Persistant Organic Pollutants, POPs. They told me the increasing concentration of these up here in the remote Arctic environment is something that worries them.

Young scientists' work on display

Young scientists’ work on display

The posters are entered in a competion, with awards and attendance at next year’s big Arctic conference event awaiting the winners. The girls were reserving judgement about whether Arctic science would be their future careers. But they were willing to give it due consideration and looking forward to the “science show” at the planetarium. Let’s see which pupils turn up here again next year!

 sparkJPG

Centre Director Tove Marienborg demonstrates the energy involved in using the “Spark” or kick-sled.

 

Date

January 24, 2014 | 12:20 pm

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