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Climactic threats loom over Arctic, reports find
by Doug O'Harra
Anchorage Daily News

February 04, 2005

Warming air temperatures and shifts in ocean currents could trigger "dangerous climate change" in the Arctic over the next couple decades - consuming more summer sea ice, stressing polar bears and altering the lives of Native people across Alaska, Canada, Russia and Greenland, according to new reports released this week at a climate conference in the United Kingdom.

"Human-induced climate change . . . is a threat to everything that Inuit are and hope to become, and to the age-old relationship between Inuit and the natural environment," wrote Sheila Watt-Cloutier of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, along with two other authors. "Climate change is a matter of cultural survival to Inuit and to other Arctic Indigenous peoples."

The predictions by researchers and Native leaders come as several American scientists warned Anchorage residents about climate change impacts in recent local lectures.

On Monday night, polar bear biologist Scott Schliebe of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told an audience of several hundred people at the University of Alaska Anchorage that shrinking ice cover in the Arctic Ocean poses a grim future for the Arctic's top predator and will ultimately make it much harder for the intelligent, white bears to find enough seals to eat.

"The future has never been more uncertain for polar bears," he said.

Last week, Ohio State University scientist Lonnie Thompson told the UAA honors program that the world's glaciers are shrinking faster than at any time in the past 50,000 years and that some ice fields may be at their smallest extent in half a million years.

Thompson led an expedition to 16,421-foot Mount Bona in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in 2002 and has monitored the disappearing ice cap of Mount Kilimanjaro for decades. His ice cores, retrieved from glaciers around the world, show that greenhouse gas levels are rising at unprecedented and exponential rates.

But Fairbanks, Alaska, atmospheric scientist and climate modeler John Walsh, who also spoke in Anchorage recently, has cautioned that increasing greenhouse gases might not be the only forces behind recent Arctic warming - that natural cycles may be exerting as much influence.

The reports in Anchorage, and from Europe, come as the worldwide debate over the human impact on climate change seems to be heating up as fast as a hot July day.

In November, a public overview of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment warned of rising temperatures, changing vegetation, shrinking ice, coastal erosion and melting permafrost.

The new European report commissioned by a conservation group, the World Wildlife Fund, outlined similar findings. It was released this week at a British-sponsored conference in Exeter in England and posted on the Internet by the group.

The report advocates a fast response: People must start reducing the burning of fossil fuels, blamed by many as the source of rising greenhouse gases in the air.

"What is needed now is the political leadership to ensure that dangerous climate change is kept to a minimum," wrote Lynn Rosentrater, with LDR Consulting of Oslo, Norway. "Rapid change in the Arctic, evidenced in this report, tells us there is no time to lose."

During the next 25 to 50 years, average global air temperature could rise as much as 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, over average temperatures before the industrial revolution, argued one of the authors, Mark New of Oxford University. But the Arctic could see warming that may be three times higher, especially during winter months.

Other major changes will see forests spreading into the tundra, causing dramatic shifts in ground cover across Alaska and other Arctic countries, wrote Jed Kaplan, of the European Commission Joint Research Center in Italy. With rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels, boreal forests could invade large areas of tundra in Greenland and Chukotka, and expand 25 percent in Alaska's Arctic, according to several models.

New satellite data shows that sea ice has been shrinking faster than expected, more than 9 percent per decade, reported Josefino Comiso, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The biggest warming appears to center in the Western Arctic and Alaska regions.

"The length of (summer) melt has been increasing by 13 days per decade over sea-ice areas, suggesting a thinning of ice cover," Comiso wrote. "The length of melt also increased by five days per decade over Greenland, seven days per decade over the permafrost areas of North America, but practically not at all throughout Asia."


Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service,

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