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Meltdown in the Arctic: Polar icecap shrinking at an alarming rate.

Byline: Raghida Haddad

Summary: The Arctic has lost about a third of its ice during the past 30 years. A record meltdown last summer shrank its sea ice down to 4.2 million square kilometers, from 7.8 million in 1980. If melting continues at this increasing rate, scientists project that the Arctic summer could be ice-free by 2013.

Editor' Note: Raghida Haddad , Executive Editor of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia magazine, was among 14 journalists invited by the World Federation of Science Journalists to join an international scientific expedition onboard the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen. She navigated for two weeks in the Arctic Ocean to get first hand experience of global warming where it is unfolding the fastest, and to relay this experience to readers throughout the Arab region. Here are some of her sightings and reflections, to be published in the September issue of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia.

NORTH POLE : The Arctic has lost about a third of its ice during the past 30 years. A record meltdown last summer shrank its sea ice down to 4.2 million square kilometers, from 7.8 million in 1980. If melting continues at this increasing rate, scientists project that the Arctic summer could be ice-free by 2013.

Last night I slept in a swing - or at least, that's how it felt on the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen, floating in the rough Arctic Ocean.

There is no ice to break, just open blue water. The ship trotted on submerged ice blocks, but there were barely traces of ice floating in the Beaufort Sea where we navigated. Most sea ice has melted in the Arctic, save the "permanent" polar icecap and ice masses adherent to Greenland, Alaska and the Northern territories, shrinking at an unprecedented rate.

I arrived yesterday by helicopter from Banks Island, off Canada's Northwestern coast, after an eight-hour flight journey from Lebanon. On that barren freezing island, I could imagine what life on the moon could be like. Surprisingly, 120 natives still live there in the coastal community of Sachs Harbor.

A young Inuit (commonly known as Eskimo) came to the air strip where we were waiting for the helicopter to fly us to the icebreaker. I asked him how livable it is on the island. "My people live on fishing and hunting caribou, musk ox and snow geese that land in hundreds of thousands," he said.

Summer is very short on this 250-mile-long island, just two months. So Inuits cannot grow vegetables and fruits. The villagers also have an annual quota to hunt 28 polar bears, which they sell for their hides, "but we have not filled our quota in the past years. Fewer bears are showing up."

"There is so much open space and outdoor living," he added. "I will not trade my life in the village for anything in the world. This is where I grew up, hunting and fishing. This is home."

Home, sweet home, even on a remote moonlike island in the Arctic.

Life has changed, however, for the Inuits who have lived here for thousands of years. They rely on freezing seawater in straits to move about and cross to other islands for hunting. With unprecedented temperature rise in the Arctic, sea ice starts to melt sooner in spring and surface water starts to freeze later in autumn. Thinning ice is not favorable for the Inuit way of life.

This is also what worries the pack of international scientists on board the research icebreaker, who are studying climate change where it where it is mostly claiming its toll: in the Arctic.

"Ms. Haddad, there are whales out there. Come up to the bridge."

I jumped out of my bed at the Captain's call, put on my thermal pants and jacket and hit the bridge. A family of three whales was diving about one kilometer away. The blowing out of air and water after each dive was spectacular. Several species of whales navigate these Arctic waters, though the populations of some are so much reduced that they rarely show up nowadays.

You can't expect what one might encounter walking around the Amundsen. On my way back, I saw two technicians working on a cylindrical tool: a hydrophone. What's that? "Well," one explained, "it's an instrument to detect and hear the songs of whales." Flocks of whales dwell in the Arctic Ocean at this time of the year.

Detection and sampling instruments are descended in the water almost every day. Two specialists on a motor boat dragged them away from the ship. They will come back next year hunting for the instruments and resulting data.

We are navigating in the Beaufort Sea. Looking from the upper deck, I found myself at the center of a blue circle. I finally believed the Earth is round.

It is never too late to do anything in the arctic summer, with 24 hours of daylight. Last "night" I went out to watch the midnight sun, hovering above the horizon. Four researchers on a motorboat were inspecting buoys that define the location of immersed equipment in the ocean. Three others were on deck, carrying water samples from the Rosette, a huge apparatus with 24 computer-controlled cylinders that collect water at different depths, reaching down to some 900 meters.

Cristina Romera, from Spain, guided me to some of the 12 labs on the Amundsen. She is collecting water samples for the Instituto de Ciencias del Mar in Barcelona, to study their contents of chlorophyll, bacteria, viruses and other arctic micro-organisms. Some of these samples will be stored in freezers under temperatures as low as -80"C using liquid nitrogen.

Heike Link, a German researcher, was inside a lab with trays of starfish, clams, worms and other creatures from the Arctic seafloor. She documents their diversity and abundance and the role they play in the ecosystem. I left her inspecting a dragon fish and spectacular worms inside tubes that they build with slime and mud.

We also met Dr. Hayley Hung, a chemical engineer from Environment Canada. She is the lead researcher of an international study to measure persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and mercury in air around the pan-Pacific area, using computer models to describe their movement and assess the impact of climate change on their deposition in the Arctic. These contaminants have been found at high levels in some Arctic marine mammals, consumed by Northern people, where they accumulate and stay in the body for a long time.

After surviving a violent storm yesterday, we spent all day in a sea of mist.

Walking on the front deck, I saw Silvia Gremes-Cordero, from Argentina, fitting one of her instruments on a pole and hauling it on the side above the sea. She is researching air-sea interaction in the boundary layer, within the first 10 meters in the atmosphere and the first 5 meters in the ocean.

"By studying small-scale turbulence, we can study gas transfer," she explained. This is especially important in calculating the ocean intake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas considered to enhance global warming. "When developing climate models," she added, "the more you know about interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean, the more accurate the models are."

As the sea absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere, its acidity increases. A new study revealed how some marine animals could be affected by acidic sea water. Scientists from Sweden and Australia allowed sea urchins to mate in water where the pH was lowered from normal 8.1 to a level of 7.7. This corresponds to an environment of triple acidity expected by the end of this century.

Female sea urchins release their eggs in the water to be fertilized by mail sperm. In this acidic sea water, however, their reproductive rate dropped by 25 percent, as the sperm swam slower and less effectively. Scientists still have to find out if other marine animals exhibit a similar effect, especially commercial species such as lobsters, crabs, mussels and fish.

The Arctic has lost about a third of its ice since satellite measurements started 30 years ago. This amounts to some 3.8 million square kilometers, with a present rate of about 70,000 square kilometers per year. A record meltdown last summer fully opened the Northwest Passage to navigation. If melting continues at this increasing rate, scientists project that the Arctic summer could be ice-free maybe as soon as 2013.

"Over two million square kilometers of polar ice pack has disappeared over the five-year period 2003-2007," said Gary Stern, chief scientist on the Amundsen. The minimum sea ice extent is seen in September.

Described as Earth's air conditioner, the Arctic helps cool the planet with its white sun-reflecting sea ice. This ice melts in spring and summer and refreezes in fall and winter. With the Arctic warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe in the last decades, the overwhelming melting will reduce this cooling process. It will also disrupt marine ecosystems and devastate wildlife, including polar bears and seals.

Here's a sad story about polar bears. They use ice floes as a means of transportation to hunt seals. With ice increasingly melting, they sometimes get stuck on an ice floe in the middle of the water and can't jump to another that doesn't exist around. So they dive to hunt, sometimes very far away that they get too tired trying to return to land more than 200 kilometers away. So they drown.

"Yes, the Arctic is warming now, but it will be cooling again within three years," said my friend Andrej Rubchenya, a Russian oceanographer and assistant professor at Saint Petersburg State University. "There are eras of warming and eras of cooling. Natural forces are too strong to respond to the human factor. Carbon emissions could be a slight factor in the process of global warming. But unless a thousand nuclear bombs are detonated, I can't imagine any human force able to encounter the mighty powers of nature."

"Climate change is a political issue," he concluded.

In August 2007, two Russian legislators in a small submarine planted a Russian flag on the seabed of the North Pole. That was another act in Russia's claim to 1.2 million square kilometers, about half the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

In response, Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans to build two new military bases in the Canadian Arctic. With ice melting faster than ever, the issue now is who will own the possible huge mineral deposits buried under the Arctic floor. According to some geologists, the Arctic could hold about 25 percent of the world's undiscovered oil and natural gas.

Arctic countries that would claim rights include Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway. This new "gold rush" might pave the way to a new kind of cold war.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, coastal nations can have economic sovereignty over up to 200 nautical miles off their shores. The rest is considered international waters. However, a nation can claim territory beyond this limit if the edge of its continental shelf extends further. This has started, with Russia claiming the huge Lomonosov Ridge underneath the Pole. The Danes are trying to prove that their side of the ridge (now detached) was once part of Greenland which belongs to Denmark. In this endeavor, the United States might finally ratify the UN Convention and claim the shelf extending Northward of Alaska.

The Convention also governs navigation rights, in focus now after the first-time recorded complete opening of the ice-blocked Northwest Passage in summer 2007. With global warming and ice melting, it could become a commercial navigation channel. Canada claims rights over this passage, which snakes between islands of its northern archipelago. Last May, Harper committed to augment Canadian Forces' capacity to "protect Arctic sovereignty and security."

But other maritime countries insist that it should be open to international traffic, as is the case in other strategic waterways like those in the South China Sea.

Calling on the American administration to take a step, former US Coast Guard Lt. Commander Scott Borgerson argued that "unless Washington leads the way toward a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict."

Last night I dreamt I was in the Arctic again.

I am back home now, safe and sound. What an incredible experience! It was so enriching living with scientists who are doing all kinds of research, tackling the indicators and effects of climate change.

Summer 2007 set a meltdown record of one million square kilometers, shrinking the Arctic sea ice down to 4.2 million square kilometers, from 7.8 million in 1980. With global warming tightening its grip, it is projected that this summer will break another record.

Many scientists believe that global warming is caused by human actions, mainly burning fuels for industry, transportation, electricity and other purposes. Others insist that this is a stage in a natural cycle, when the Earth's atmosphere warms up, but will cool again in years to come. Many people even believe this is God's wrath, punishing humanity for its disobedience and abuse of nature.

Would the expectations of an iceless Arctic summer by 2013 turn out to be right? Voyaging in the Arctic for two weeks without seeing floating ice was unbelievable. Whatever the reason might be, global warming is a fact and the ice meltdown is an ongoing process. We all ought to do something about it, as individuals, institutions, governments and global community.

When my 6-year-old niece heard I was going to the North Pole region, she asked: "Will you see Santa?" Well, I don't believe in Santa anymore. But if he really lives there, I hope that in a few years he will not be rowing a boat instead of riding a reindeer-pulled sleigh.

For more details, check Raghida Haddad's blog on the World Federation of Science Journalists' Web site at



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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Aug 29, 2008
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