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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!

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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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Climate Change: Arctic in denial?

Norway’s “Arctic Capital” – closest to climate change?

If there is one place you would imagine people would have to be conscious of climate change, it would be the Arctic, where the temperature is rising around twice as fast as the global average. As I mentioned in the Ice Blog yesterday and in my article on dw.de from here in Tromsö, changes to the sea ice and temperature are altering life rapidly and visibly for people in the high north. So I was intrigued by a side-event here at Arctic Frontiers, which made it clear that this does not necessarily mean people are aware of climate change and what it involves – at least not consciously or actively.

“How to Create a Climate for Change” was the subject of the workshop organised by UArctic, the University of the Arctic. (That is not the same as Tromsö University, which is called Norway’s Arctic University. UArctic is a cooperative network of northern universities and other educational institutions.)

The workshop was looking at awareness of climate change in Norway and other Arctic regions. Kari Marie Norgaard is Professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon in the USA. She spent ten months researching in Bygdaby,a community in northern Norway and told us she had actually monitored  an “incredible disconnect between the moral, social, and environmental crisis of climate change and people not realising it is happening.”norgaard2

This is not limited to the Arctic, although it seems particularly striking in an area undergoing such major changes. There seems to be a widespread paradox in that climate change is leading to dramatic alterations to ecology systems and significant social consequences, but that there is no widespread sense of a need for urgent action.

This is not limited to the Arctic, although it seems particularly striking in an area undergoing such major changes. There seems to be a widespread paradox in that climate change is leading to dramatic alterations to ecology systems and significant social consequences, but that there is no widespread sense of a need for urgent action. Humans, says Norgaard, are “not getting it”. They are carrying on regardless, acting as if nothing were happening.

Denial but not climate scepticism

She speaks of “denial”, but not in the sense that people do not accept that climate change is happening. Norgaard told me she has come under a lot of pressure from the extreme right in the USA, who do not understand her distinction. Her hypothesis is that we know climate change is happening just as we know violence, rape or massacres happen. But we do not perceive it as psychologically disturbing or carrying a moral imperative to act. Norgaard is interested in how and why people collectively resist information about climate change. She focuses on Norway rather than her home country USA because this is a country with a high rate of newspaper readership, high levels of political participation,and where climate change is more visible in the northern region, and people know it is happening.

But in spite of the fact that Bygdaby is highly dependent on farming and tourism, where the climate is important, the fact that the winter had been warm, the snow was two months late and artificial snow had to be used for skiing, did not result in a heightened interest in climate change. In fact, she says, it  was invisible in social or political life. One of her conclusions is that people want to protect themselves to some extent and so prefer to live as if climate change was not happening. Her theory is that people don’t want to feel guilty about their lifestyle and also try to avoid fear of the future and feeling helpless.

The greatest communication failure of all time?

 Althouth Norgaard did her research in Norway, she says the findings apply equally elsewhere, including the USA, where regions are already experiencing climate impacts with economic consequences, but people don’t want to accept that it could have something to do with their lifestyle and require unpleasant action.

Arctic psychologist Stoknes' cartoon

Arctic psychologist Stoknes’ cartoon

Per Espen Stoknes is Associate Professor at the Center for Climate Strategy of the Norwegian Business Institute NBI. He says surveys going back to 1989 in Norway show a decrease in people’s concern about the greenhouse effect and climate change .Only

4 in 10 see it as a problem and only 8% see it as being of importance. Espen stresses this is not because of a lack of knowledge. In fact, he thinks the better the facts get, the less people care.

Stoknes came up with an interesting figure. Apparently the public has the impression only 55% of climate scientists agree on global warming. In realty, it is 97%.Getting the  message about climate change across is the ““Greatest communication failure of all time”, says Stoknes.

 

Who’s to blame?

 Some of the responsibility lies with the scientists in his view. He says scientists need to lecture people less and discuss more. Another problem is that people tend to think of climate as being very distant in time and space. An IPCC estimate for 2100 seems a long way away. For people outside the Arctic, melting sea ice  also seems geographically very remote. The same applies to places like Bangladesh or the Maldives.

Stoknes suggestions for improving the situation are not new. But evidently, the message has not got across – or the suggestions proved not effective. He says the media should have less gloom and doom and present more positive stories and examples of practicable action. If only it were that simple.

Stoknes sees a "psychological climate paradox"

Stoknes sees a “psychological climate paradox”

I remember numerous heated discussions on this topic at a Global Media Forum on Climate Change and the Media in Bonn  in 2010, and atvarious other events I was involved in. Communicating climate change in a way that will make people take action in their everyday lives and put pressure on governments to do the same, remains a priority and a challenge.

One idea Stoknes has strikes me as being useful. He stresses the power of social norms to change behaviour, and suggests campaigns that make people compete with their peers – neighbours, other towns, friends, relatives, for being climate-conscious, can be effective. He talked about the success of an app where people can record and compare their energy saving.

Another possibility is to make “greener” options the default, something I was talking further about with some US colleagues today. If the normal way a printer works is to use both sides of the paper, for instance, people will do that. Not though if they have to change a setting

Plenty of food for thought here. The psychological and social dimensions of climate change awareness clearly deserve more consideration.

 

 

Date

January 23, 2014 | 7:38 pm

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Sun returns after dark Arctic winter

The sun comes up over Tromso

The sun has come back over the horizon. I can understand why people celebrate it here. At the moment there are just a few hours of light. Now the sun actually appears at around 12. In between the Arctic Frontiers conference sessions, I took a lunchtime walk to see the sun come up. What a difference it makes to how you perceive your surroundings! I cannot resist sharing a few visual impressions with you on the Ice Blog:

Reflections!

Reflections! No reflections without light! We tend to take our light for granted. It’s very special after the winter darkness here.

This would me my preferred means of transport here

This would me my preferred means of transport here.

But others go for a more universal type. Are there snow chains for bikes?

Are there snow chains for bikes?

Of course people dress for the weather. Elegant?

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Traditional, warm, practical.

And a final view of frosted snow trees against the winter sunlight.

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Now back to the science sessions of Arctic Frontiers. The place has quietened down since the departure of the politicians.Remember to check for updates on Twitter @iceblogger

Date

January 22, 2014 | 3:28 pm

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