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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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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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Sustainable Future for Arctic people?

Tromso campus

Tromso campus

It has been a full day at Arctic Frontiers. This was day one of the two-day political segment (science follows from Wednesday). The main message seems to be that Arctic development is going full speed ahead. The Arctic Council (currently chaired by Canada) snd Arctic states will have their hands full in the years to come, coordinating that development and trying to make it sustainable and of benefit to the people of the High North. “Humans in the Arctic” is a very apt theme.

My impression after today’s events is that Sami and other indigenous people still feel a little out in the cold as the planet warms, the ice melts fast and development speeds up.

Sami Parliament President

Sami Parliament President Ailei Keskitalo

Aili Keskitalo President of the Norwegian Sami Parliament (and first female President of any Sami parliament) stressed in her opening address that the changes in the Arctic are clearly impacting living conditions for people in the High North. She mentioned health concerns influenced by climatic change, the accumulation of environmental toxins in food, changes in lievelihoods through new industries, pressure on traditional cultures having an impact on mental health. As indigenous peoples often live close to nature, they are in the front line of climatic change. Traditional industries like fishing, trapping, reindeer husbandry and strong ties to the landscape, imply additional vulnerability to industrial encroachment and other developments, she stressed.

Clearly, mining, oil exploration and the changes that come with them are a huge challenges for indigenous peoples. Challenges and opportunities were buzzwords in today’s sessions. How to help traditional indigenous communities benefit from the “opportunities” of development? Keskitalo stressed the need to respect the human rights of these communities when developing natural resources and changing the environment.

Other high-profile speakers (some more high profile than others – an indication of the priority allocated to the meeting by different Arctic states?) certainly went on a lot about opportunities and making sure the people of the High North get the benefit. But I couldn’t help wondering how much was lip service. This was backed up by informal chats with people in the breaks and some of the questions from the floor. But the proof of the pudding will be in the eating…

Shipping is on the increase in the Arctic region

Tromso: Shipping is on the increase in the Arctic region

It was only in the final session of the day, a panel debate on the Northern Shipping Route, that an ngo representative, Nina Jensen, CEO of WWF Norge, was on the podium. I seem to remember more ngo active participation in earlier years. At that point in the meeting there was finally talk of dangers for rare species,  black carbon increase, additional pollution from shipping through grey water, sewage, the danger of a spill of heavy fuel oil, invasive species in ballast water and such like. Yes, climate change-induced Arctic development brings with it not only opportunities but also risks and threats.

The debate was conducted mainly between Nina Jensen and Felix Tschudi, the Chairman of Tschudi Group shipping company, who was putting the industry point of view. Needless to say the two had differing opinions  before, during and at the end of the debate. It would be surprising otherwise. It was mentioned during the day that the Polar Code negotiations might be successfully concluded in London this week. That, says Jensen, would be an important first step. But it would not solve all the problems.

This is a debate which will continue tomorrow – and, I have no doubt, well after the end of Arctic Frontiers. How compatible are economic development, environmental protection and the health and traditional cultures of indigenous groups in the Arctic?

 

Date

January 21, 2014 | 6:28 am

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Climate change and the polar vortex

Frozen Waves, Chukchi Sea, Barrow, Alaska


(Chukchi Sea, Barrow, Alaska. Pic: I Quaile)

If you live in one of the North American areas hit by the latest big freeze, you may well have been hearing someone say “so much for global warming” over the last week or so. If you live on this side of the Atlantic, you might have been tempted to worry more about climate change if you were being battered by storms or gales. Then there are those here in Germany saying “give me more of this warming”, with the birds tweeting and the bushes blooming as if we were already in the middle of spring.

Date

January 10, 2014 | 3:28 pm

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Santa in distress in a melting Arctic

 

Beautiful but on the endangered list

Not too stable for elves or reindeer! (Photo I. Quaile)

As I was floating around our local swimming pool to the sound of “Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer” last night, the thought of reindeer in water took my thoughts up north. Poor old Santa must be having a worrying time. Snow and sleighs are the basis of his business. If anybody has to be concerned about what climate change is doing to the Arctic, it has to be Santa. His snowy wonderland is melting twice or even three times as fast as the rest of the planet. Reindeer are threatened by climate change, a new report confirms.

Maybe he is already thinking about some alternative transport. Marine animals to get across an increasingly watery north?  Walruses? Whales? Dolphins? But he’d have problems putting them out the back to graze while he distributes the presents and sips his sherry. And in the long-term their food sources could be increasingly problematic with ocean acidification threatening so many species. A hi-tech climate-neutral alternative like the solar plane? Not much good at night. And not nearly as much fun as reindeer.

Then come the territorial disputes, with Canada and Russia arguing over who owns the North Pole. Santa would not want to be caught in the crossfire. And landing on rooftops is becoming increasingly hazardous. Does it count as hooliganism?

Svalbard reindeer, Ny Alesund

Love those Svalbard reindeer! (Photo I.Quaile)

His Russian partner “Father Frost” (aka Grandfather Frost or Jack) must be getting a bit worried as well.  He’s said to be building a giant freezer to keep Siberia cool –  powered presumably with oil and gas from the Arctic.

I’m not the only one to be concerned. Greenpeace have come up with a “Save Santa’s Home” campaign, and a whole set of electronic Christmas cards drawing attention to the plight of our jovial white-bearded gift-bringer. And if you haven’t seen Santa’s Message on video, have a look. And remember we British have a tongue-in-cheek kind of sense of humour. CNN missed that, I think, when they broadcast their own story about the video (although it is not without a sliver of its own biting wit). Reporter Jeanne Moos reminds Santa that “An organisation of climate change sceptics” is talking about “recovering Arctic ice”.  The “other side” does (in the interests of unbiased journalism no doubt ;-) ? get quoted in the report. Moos talks about  ”those who believe in global warming” as if the majority who accept the findings of something like 99% of scientists, the UN, the IPCC… belonged to a weird sect.

switzerland iqSanta, I’m with you and all those who are interested in protecting the Arctic from climate change and pollution. Rudolph, Dancer, Prancer and the rest of you guys – keep up the good work. You make millions of kids (and a lot of grown ups) happy every Christmas. Here’s hoping the world will take some steps in 2014 that will preserve your frozen north home for generations to come.

Merry Christmas everybody! The iceblogger will be back in January 2014. Keep your eye out for the odd tweet @iceblogger

Date

December 20, 2013 | 12:57 pm

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