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How adaptable are Arctic ecosystems?

Stig in his favourite spot, the instrument room

Stig in his favourite spot, the instrument room

The man in charge of this scientific cruise is Stig Falk-Petersen, Professor at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromso and research advisor at Akvaplan-niva, a research consultancy working on environment monitoring. Originally from the Lofoten islands, he is a fountain of knowledge on marine life but also on history, especially relating to changes in the Arctic and indeed the European climate in general. He makes climate history of warm and cold periods more understandable by relating it to events like the  Napoleonic wars, or the battle of Stalingrad. He stresses how that kind of approach shows just how important the climate is to society. He also knows a lot about the history of Arctic research. We owe a lot to Russia, where most of the Arctic research came from for a long time, says Stig.

Filling the winter gaps

I had a long talk with him, getting the background to this whole Polar Night project, which started in 2012. Apart from Nansen’s famous  ice drift with the Fram (currently being repeated, but that’s a story for later), and the Russian North Pole drift stations, there had been few expeditions to the Arctic ocean in winter. Especially with regard to the southern part of the Arctic Ocean and the Fram strait, there were (and still are) huge gaps in our knowledge, Stig told me.  In 2012 conditions were right for winter expeditions to the north and north west of Svalbard, to study the ecosystems. This was to complement a  set of permanent observatories set up in the fjords here, measuring temperature, salinity, oxygen, light, chlorophyll and the movement of plankton.

Easier access through climate change?

Icicles on the HH's nets

Icicles on the HH’s nets

I wanted to know why this has become possible. Is it because of climate change? Stig told me we actually have a climate record from 1550 until today about the ice around Spitsbergen, going back to accounts of  Dutch whalers,  which cover around 150 years, then to British expeditions. Since 1979 we have satellite records.  All of this shows a large variation in the ice cover. Around 1680, he says, the whole of Spitsbergen was actually ice free. This lasted until 1800, when the ice expanded again from 82 degrees north to 76 degrees north –  a huge and fast expansion of the ice cap. Then all this area was ice cold until approximately 1939. Since the year 2000, the region where we are now has been open again.  “So you have this large variation of ice cover, driven by various climate factors, – temperature, pressure system,  and that means  a dramatic change for animals living in this area”, says Stig. To him, this shows the ecosystem up here is able to adapt to considerable change.

Ice, less ice, no ice?

“If you look back 50 years,  this was all ice covered, so there was no primary production, so there were very few of these marine animals. Now, since the ice has retreated, the year 2000 approximately, we have a huge bloom of phytoplankton in the spring.  So we have nutrients there, and we see that the calumus species, which is important for whales,  is there. The bowhead whale,  which was more or less extinct in this region for 150 years, is now back”. So, clearly, there are some winners – at least temporarily – in the course of climate change..

Captain Jon Almestad ensures safe sailing on the Helmer Hanssen

Captain Jon Almestad has an easier task on the bridge of  the Helmer Hanssen with less ice

Our expedition leader was involved in one research project which could indicate that even some  ice- dependent creatures have their own ways of coping with ice-free spells. He and his colleagues found that some tiny creatures which eat off the ice algae under the ice, float out with the ice. When it melts in summer in the Fram Strait, the egg-carrying females migrate down into the North Atlantic current, which then flows up into the Arctic Ocean, then migrate upwards in the water  again. “Exactly when the ice algae blooms,  in March April, their offspring  is back and feeding again,” says Stig. So does that indicate that ecosystems here in the Arctic are well able to adapt to large variations in the climate,  I want to know. Stig is reluctant to make anything that could be interpreted as a prediction of what future climate change could hold in store for the High North. But he stresses the temperature has increased in the Arctic by 2 degrees since 1987, much higher than the global increase. His impression is that the ecosystem has adapted well even to such a huge change in a short period.  He doesn’t see himself as an optimist. But this view is certainly more optimistic than a lot of other people I talk to about the Arctic.

Date

January 16, 2015 | 12:36 pm

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Ice and mud, glorious mud

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Sculpted by nature!

Most of the time our ship is out of range of internet connectivity, so this post will be delivered  to you from the research base Ny Alesund. My hosts and the station staff were  kind enough to arrange a special little boat and a survival suit for a trip through the dark but fascinating polar night. This is only possible because tonight we are still relatively close, with the ship collecting samples in Kongsfjorden, on the north-west side of Spitsbergen. This is an open fjord with a relatively free connection  to adjacent shelf. It’s 20 km long, between 4 and 10 metres wide and a maximum depth of 400 metres. This means it is largely influenced by both Atlantic water and Arctic water. It also gets a discharge of fresh water and sediments from adjacent glaciers, which we will be looking at more closely in the next few days. It has been an action-packed day today, watching polar marine night researchers in action. Night research during the day sounds odd, but I can assure you it is certainly dark enough –at any time of day.

Busy on the deck

Busy on the deck

Muddy secrets Sergei Korsun from St. Petersburg university and PhD student Olga Knyazeva were out on deck preparing a box corer, a  big box-shaped instrument to go down to the seabed and bring up samples of sediment. The teamwork between scientists and crew seems to work brilliantly. The crew operate the lifting and lowering equipment and all sorts of other gear. The scientists collect their samples from it and take them in to the ship’s lab.

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Sergei and Olga hard at work

“Just a load of mud”, quips Sergei, and there is certainly plenty of it sploshing about in the course of the operation. No wonder there are no outdoor shoes allowed inside.

Separate the mud from the mud!

Separate the mud from the mud!

Olga drains off the water so that only the sediment is left. These two are interested in foraminifera or forams, one-celled organisms. Ice Blog readers may remember I discussed them here some time ago, in connection with research on ocean acidification. German scientists actually wrote a children’s story with Tessi and Tipo, two of these tiny ocean creatures, as the main characters. The focus there was on how increasingly acid seas are dissolving the protective shells of many organisms, especially in cold, Arctic water, where the process is faster. Every creature counts! So why should we be interested in these forams in particular? No question about it, says Olga. There are so many of them, they account for a huge proportion of biomass and we know far too little about what they are up to in the winter. Given their important role in the ecosystem, what they do in winter is something we really ought to know. The season of winter is just too long to be ignored any longer, says Olga. And ultimately, even the tiniest creatures play a role in the global foodweb.  Sergei mentions another reason why climatologists and those interested in the history of the planet are so interested in these tiny creatures. They fossilize, so that scientists can use samples from the seafloor to get a record of earth’s history that goes back a very long way.

Shades of blue and dark

Shades of blue and dark

Inner clocks without daylight? Shortly afterwards, I joined  Sören and Lukas from Germany’s Alfred-Wegener  Institute  for one of their  four-hourly net-dropping exercises. For  this, a big hatch is opened on the laboratory deck. This brought added excitement as  there were a lot of beautifully shaped chunks of ice just floating past. Iceblogger’s delight!

Ice bonus!

Ice bonus!

We could also see the hills in silhouette in the background. Clearly there are indeed many shades of “dark”. Seagulls are following us constantly. No doubt they know fish and shrimps are being caught and are always on the lookout for an easy, tasty morsel. In this climate, I don’t blame them. And it is kind of reassuring to have their company, bright in the ship’s lights against the dark sky and sea. The wind felt icy, but the experts up here tell us it is actually relatively mild. Anyway, our two scientists dropped a longish thin net attached to a sort of circular hoop out the hatch, sampling the water.

Getting the net ready

Getting the net ready

When it came in, they take samples of small jellyfish, copepods and krill, for a fascinating project to find out about the “biological clock gene”. How can some marine organisms migrate vertically in a 24-25 hour cycle, without light to trigger this?  More about that when I’ve interviewed the experts over the next couple of days.

Lukas takes a close look.

Lukas takes a close look.

The advantages of winter If you have been waiting for the answer to the question about reproduction in the last blog, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. Given that the reason is unlikely to be an ideal food supply for the “babies”, some of the scientists on board think the reason could be that there fewer predators about to eat the young, if they arrive in winter. Does that seem plausible? The next post may be a day or two in arriving, as the ship will be out of range from tomorrow onwards. But I promise plenty more to come as soon as we are back in internet range. (How on earth did we live without it?!)

Pick your helmet!

If you want to get ahead… get a (hard) hat! No going on deck without one.

 

Date

January 13, 2015 | 7:41 pm

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Snow delays? In Norway?

De-icing monster on the approach, departure looking more likely!

De-icing monster on the approach, departure looking more likely!

Norway is one place that generally has no problem with a bit of snow, but my flight from Oslo to Longyearben on Svalbard is indeed delayed because of snow. There seems to be a queue at the de-icing stand. I am hoping there will be no problems catching the next little plane up to Ny Alesund. But as it is a fairly special flight, I am hoping the pilot and my Polar Night colleagues already in Longyearben will wait for me.

As I struggled to get out of bed early on a cold, snowy morning, I imagined what it must be like to live in the High Arctic and have a few months without any light at all. Tough going! But there is also something absolutely beautiful about snow in moonlight and starlight.

I am looking forward to seeing Ny Alesund again, although I know it will be very different in the dark. In summer, of course, it is light all year round. The weather seems to be fairly changeable. A colleague in Tromso (where I shall be heading after the scientific boat expedition) tells me there are some areas with no snow cover and others close by covered by snow drifts. “Pack for everything”, he said, and be prepared for a VERY cold spell on the horizon.

A fellow passenger told me he had been evacuated from a ship at Trondheim, because of gale force winds, force 12. So I am wondering what conditions will be like for our ship, the RV Helmer Hanssen, when it leaves Ny Alesund later today.

Meanwhile, when I left Germany yesterday, I saw hazel bushes in bloom. I reminded myself this is January. But of course it comes after the warmest year on record. The climate is changing – and I am headed for the region most affected on the whole planet, warming at around twice the average speed. I’ll keep you posted.

Date

January 12, 2015 | 1:11 pm

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UN expert: Santa on Arctic watch

 

Still snow for Santa and friends on Svalbard! (Pic: I.Quaile)

Still snow for Santa and friends on Svalbard! (Pic: I.Quaile)

As we come to the end of what looks set to be one of the warmest years on record, there is plenty of reason to be concerned about the impact on the Arctic. Traditionally, in my home regions of the world in Germany and in Scotland, a lot of people look up to the snowy north with Santa Claus and the reindeer hopefully just around the corner. Here in Bonn, I recently hosted the latest edition of Deutsche Welle’s environment radio show Living Planet. One of my interview guests was Bradnee Chambers, the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Migratory Species, CMS, also known as the Bonn Convention. Towards the end of the interview, looking back over the wildlife year, I asked Bradnee how things were looking for the species that live up in Santa’s home, the High North, either all year round or just for some parts of the year. This is what he told me:

“We recently had our Arctic congress in Trondheim, Norway, and a report was released on Arctic biodiversity. It’s showing a lot of issues. Polar bears are being affected by a decrease in sea ice, and the report says in the next few decades we can expect a decline of over 35 percent in polar bears, we’re seeing a decline in the wetland systems up there, 50 percent of the wetlands have disappeared in the last decade in the Arctic. We’re seeing species like the ivory gull being affected. With the decline in the ice coverage in the Arctic we’re also going to see a lot more development, a lot more drilling, and this is going to affect the pristine Arctic waters that have been pretty much left untouched from development. And I’m afraid in general we are going to see a lot more impacts, as we see the Arctic change and transportation routes open up”.

Iceblogger: Will Santa still find his own transportation route on his sleigh down to us this Christmas?

Yes, I’m sure Santa will still find his way down from the Arctic to bring lots of happiness to all the children around the world. But I’m sure he’s watching out at the same time to see that the place where he lives is not going to be degraded or decline any further than it has in the last few decades!

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The Iceblogger wishes you all happy holidays!

Here’s hoping Santa will have plenty of helpers with that mammoth task in the coming year.

Happy Christmas to all Ice Blog readers, enjoy your end of year break.

I will be backafter the holiday, as I prepare for a trip to Arctic Svalbard in January. More soon. Here is a Svalbard pic to keep you going in the meantime and, I hope, make you look forward to some icy blog posts to come, as you “chill” away the festive season!

svalbard from the air

Beautiful Svalbard from the air – in summer! (Pic: I.Quaile)

 

Date

December 23, 2014 | 1:34 pm

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Arctic investment: still a hot prospect?

 

Shipping in icy waters, Svalbard

Shipping in icy waters, Svalbard (Pic: I.Quaile)

As I mentioned in the last post, I talked to various people about the current state of interest in the Arctic, in connection with the ArcticNet conference on “Arctic Change” in Ottawa last week. I would like to share some of the insights I gained with you here on the Ice Blog. With a lot of concerned people still suffering from a kind of mental hangover after the two weeks of UN climate negotiations in Lima, let me also direct you to a commentary I wrote for DW: Lima: a disappointment, but not a surprise. If you expected any action at the meeting which might help stop the Arctic warming, you will have been highly disappointed. If, like me, you think the transition to renewables and emissions reductions we need have to happen outside of  and alongside that process, all day and every day, your expectations will not have been so high.

But back to the Arctic itself. With Canada coming to the end of its spell at the helm of the Arctic Council and preparing to hand over the rotating presidency to the USA at the end of the year, the annual conference organized by the research network ArcticNet was bound to attract a lot of interest. More than 1200 leading international Arctic researchers, indigenous leaders, policy makers, NGOs and business people attended the Ottawa gathering to discuss the pressing issues facing the warming Arctic.

Hugues Lantuit from Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute is a member of the steering committee.  He’s an expert on permafrost and coastal erosion. He told me in an interview that the region had to prepare for greater impacts ,with the latest IPCC report projecting the Arctic would continue to warm at a rate faster than any place on earth. While the retreat of sea ice allows easier access for shipping and more scope for commercial activities, Lantuit is concerned about the thawing of permafrost, a key topic at the Ottawa gathering:

“An extensive part of the circumpolar north is covered with permafrost, and it’s currently warming at a fast pace. A lot of cities are built on permafrost, and the layer that is thawing in the summer is expanding and getting deeper and deeper, which threatens infrastructure.”

 

Scientists at measuring stations like the one I viisted at Zackenberg, Greenland, measure the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by melting permafrost.

Scientists at measuring stations like the one I viisted at Zackenberg, Greenland, measure the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by melting permafrost. (I.Quaile)

Northern communities worried

Residents of northern communities are concerned about the impact of melting permafrost on railways, landing strips and buildings. Lantuit and his colleagues have created an integrated data base for permafrost temperature, with support from the EU. At the Ottawa meeting, he and his colleagues worked on identifying priorities for research, taking into account the needs of communities and stakeholders in the Arctic.

Another key issue on the Ottawa agenda was coastal erosion. Sea ice acts as a protective barrier to the coast, preventing waves from battering the shore and speeding up the thaw of permafrost. With decreasing sea ice in the summer, scientists expect more storms will impact on the coasts of the Arctic. “In some locations, especially in Alaska, we see much greater erosion than there was before”, says Lantuit. This creates a lot of issues: “There is oil and gas infrastructure on the coast, villages, people, also freshwater habitats for migrating caribou, so the coast has a tremendous social and ecological value in the Arctic, and coastal erosion is obviously a threat to settlements and to the features of this social and economical presence in the Arctic.”

Bad news for furred and feathered friends

Amongst the participants at the conference was George Divoky, an ornithologist who has spent every summer of the past 45 years on Cooper Island, off the coast of Barrow, in Arctic Alaska. Divoky monitors a colony of black guillemots that nest on the island in summer. His bird-watching project turned into a climate change observation project as he witnessed major changes in the last four decades:

“Warming first aided the guillemots (1970s and 1980) as the summer snow-free period increased. The size of the breeding colony increased during the initial stages of warming. Continued warming (1990s to present) caused the sea ice to rapidly retreat in July and August when guillemots are feeding nestlings, and the loss of ice reduced the amount and quality of prey resulting in widespread starvation of nestlings.”

The 2014 breeding season on Cooper Island had the lowest number of breeding pairs of Black Guillemots on the island in the last 20 years, Divoky says. Reduced sea ice is increasingly forcing polar bears to seek refuge on the island, eating large numbers of nestlings. Polar bears were rare visitors to the island until 2002.

A polar bear tries to get at a black guillemot nest site (Pic: George Divoky)

A polar bear tries to get at a black guillemot nest site (Pic: George Divoky)

The Arctic and the global climate

Divoky went to Ottawa to fit his research and experience into the wider context of climate impacts in the Arctic. Researching climate change and its effects are important but of little practical use if the research does not inform government officials and result in policies that address the causes of climate change, Divoky argues.

I asked Hugues Lantuit whether he thought the UN climate conference in Peru could achieve anything that would halt the warming of the Arctic. He said  reducing emissions and reducing temperature were the only way to reduce the thaw of permafrost. But he is quite clear about the fact that there is no mitigation strategy in terms of permafrost directly.  “You would have to put a blanket over the entire permafrost in the northern hemisphere. This is not possible.”

At the same time, he stressed the key role of the Arctic with regard to the whole world climate: “Permafrost contains a lot of what we call organic carbon, and that is stored in the upper part. And if that warms, the carbon is made available to microorganisms that convert it back to carbon dioxide and methane. And we estimate right now that there is twice as much organic carbon in permafrost as there is in the atmosphere”.

So far, the international community has not been able to take measures to break that vicious circle.

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

Tromso harbour 2014 (I.Quaile)

What happened to the Arctic gold rush?

Communities who live and companies that work in the Arctic have to focus on adaptation to the rapid change, says Lantuit. In his eyes, economic activity is increasing, posing new challenges for infrastructure and the environment.

Malte Humpert, the Executive Director of the Arctic Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Washington DC has a different view on the matter. He says while attendance at Arctic conferences and interest in the Arctic is still high, commercial activity has actually been cooling off. “We are seeing a slow-down of investment. Up to this point there has been a lot of studying, a lot of interest being voiced, with representatives from China or South Korea, Japan, Singapore or other actors, arriving at conferences, speaking about grand plans. But up to this point a lot of the talk has been just that.” A lot of activity has been put on hold, says Humpert. He says the “gold rush mentality we saw a few years ago” has weakened. “There was a lot of talk about Arctic shipping initially, then we had oil and gas activity in 2012, north of Alaska, then we had the discussion about minerals in Greenland. The question is now, with the oil price being down below 70$ a barrel, some political uncertainties over the Ukraine, involving the EU and Russia, how will that affect Arctic development?”

Humpert stresses the Arctic does not exist in a vacuum, but has to be seen within the global context. Sanctions on Russia because of the Ukraine crisis have created economic problems for Moscow and limited access to technology it might need for its Arctic activities. “Maybe Arctic development has been oversold and overplayed and will be more of a niche operators’ investment. One could definitely question if there will be this global push into the Arctic.”

Arctic development on ice

Humpert is skeptical that any major development will take place before 2030. He says developing the infrastructure in terms of ports and communications in the remote Arctic region would require billions of dollars of investment, and would have to be a very long-term proposition. It will also depend to a large extent on exactly how climate change affects ice conditions in the Arctic. Climate change can make the climatic conditions in the Arctic more variable. This means that for a temporary period, there might even be more ice, which would block transport routes.

The Arctic Institute says there has actually been a slow down this year in terms of navigation on the northern sea route (NSR) in particular: “The season just closed about a week ago. Last year we had 1.35 million tonnes of cargo being transported along the NSR, this year we had less than 700,000 tonnes, so an almost 50% decrease, just because there was more ice in the way”, says Humpert.

Whether slower development is good news or bad depends on your perspective. The lull in Arctic activity could pre-empt environmental degradation or destruction, says Humpert, and leave scope to consider development of the Arctic in what he calls a 21st century way. Instead of  “old-school” thinking about extracting minerals, oil and gas and increasing shipping, there could be a focus on bringing modern, high-speed communications, fiber optics and thinking about renewables, such as wave energy. This would benefit the small populations in the Arctic, the expert argues.

But from the viewpoint of a country like Russia, he adds, where 40 percent of your exports are generated above the Arctic circle, in terms of hydrocarbon resources, the slowdown in Arctic development because of the drop in oil prices and political tensions over Ukraine is very worrying.

So while these developments seem to have brought the Arctic a breathing space, ultimately, the commercialization of the region could be just a matter of time. Ottawa conference organizer Lantuit argues that there has always been activity in the high North. The priority now, he says, must be to ensure international cooperation and additional investment in protecting the environment and maintaining safety in a region where rapid change seems to have become the status quo.

 

Date

December 15, 2014 | 11:57 am

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