Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Record 22C temperatures in Arctic heatwave

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Independent, UK

Parts of the Arctic have experienced an unprecedented heatwave this summer, with one research station in the Canadian High Arctic recording temperatures above 20C, about 15C higher than the long-term average. The high temperatures were accompanied by a dramatic melting of Arctic sea ice in September to the lowest levels ever recorded, a further indication of how sensitive this region of the world is to global warming. Scientists from Queen's University in Ontario watched with amazement as their thermometers touched 22C during their July field expedition at the High Arctic camp on Melville Island, usually one of the coldest places in North America.

"This was exceptional for a place where the normal average temperatures are about 5C. This year we frequently recorded daytime temperatures of between 10C and 15C and on some days it went as high as 22C," said Scott Lamoureux, a professor of geography at Queen's.

"Even temperatures of 15C are higher than we'd expect and yet we recorded them for between 10 and 12 days during July. We won't know the August and September recordings until next year when we go back there but it appears the region has continued to be warm through the summer."

The high temperatures on the island caused catastrophic mudslides as the permafrost on hillsides melted, Professor Lamoureux said. "The landscape was being torn to pieces, literally before our eyes."

Other parts of the Arctic also experienced higher-than-normal temperatures, which indicate that the wider polar region may have experienced its hottest summer on record, according to Walt Meir of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado.

"It's been warm, with temperatures about 3C or 4C above normal for June, July and August, particularly to the north of Siberia where the temperatures have reached between 4C and 5C above average," Dr Meir said.

Unusually clear skies over the Arctic this summer have caused temperatures to rise. More sunlight has exacerbated the loss of sea ice, which fell to a record low of 4.28 million square kilometres (1.65 million square miles), some 39 per cent below the long-term average for the period 1979 to 2000. Dr Meir said: "While the decline of the ice started out fairly slowly in spring and early summer, it accelerated rapidly in July. By mid-August, we had already shattered all previous records for ice extent."

An international team of scientists on board the Polar Stern, a research ship operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, also felt the effects of an exceptionally warm Arctic summer. The scientists had anticipated that large areas of the Arctic would be covered by ice with a thickness of about two metres, but found that it had thinned to just one metre.

Instead of breaking through thicker ice at an expected speed of between 1 and 2 knots, the Polar Stern managed to cruise at 6 knots through thin ice and sometimes open water.

"We are in the midst of a phase of dramatic change in the Arctic," said Ursula Schauer, the chief scientist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, who was on board the Polar Stern expedition. "The ice cover of the North Polar Sea is dwindling, the ocean and the atmosphere are becoming steadily warmer, the ocean currents are changing," she said.

One scientist came back from the North Pole and reported that it was raining there, said David Carlson, the director of International Polar Year, the effort to highlight the climate issues of the Arctic and Antarctic. "It makes you wonder whether anyone has ever reported rain at the North Pole before."

Another team of scientists monitoring the movements of Ayles Ice Island off northern Canada reported that it had broken in two far earlier than expected, a further indication of warmer temperatures. And this summer, for the first time, an American sailing boat managed to traverse the North-west Passage from Nova Scotia to Alaska, a voyage usually made by icebreakers. Never before has a sail-powered vessel managed to get straight through the usually ice-blocked sea passage.

Inhabitants of the region are also noticing a significant change as a result of warmer summers, according to Shari Gearheard, a research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. "People who live in the region are noticing changes in sea ice. The earlier break-up and later freeze-up affect when and where people can go hunting, as well as safety for travel," she said.

Mark Serreze of the National Snow and Ice Data Centre, said: "We may see an ice-free Arctic Ocean in summer within our lifetimes. The implications... are disturbing."

The North-west Passage: an ominous sign

The idea of a North-west Passage was born in 1493, when Pope Alexander VI divided the discovered world between Spain and Portugal, blocking England, France and Holland from a sea route to Asia. As it became clear a passage across Europe was impossible, the ambitious plan was hatched to seek out a route through north-western waters, and nations sent out explorers. When, in the 18th century, James Cook reported that Antarctic icebergs produced fresh water, the view that northern waters were not impossibly frozen was encouraged. In 1776 Cook himself was dispatched by the Admiralty with an Act promising a £20,000 prize, but he failed to push through a route north of Canada. His attempt preceded several British expeditions including a famous Victorian one by Sir John Franklin in 1845. Finally, in 1906 Roald Amundsen led the first trip across the passage to Alaska, and since then a number of fortified ships have followed. On 21 August this year, the North-west Passage was opened to ships not armed with icebreakers for the first time since records began.

1 comment:

Ben Terrall from Haiti said...


Climate change disaster is upon us, warns UN

· Emergency relief chief calls for swift action
· 12 out of 13 'flash' appeals in 2007 related to weather
· In pictures: floods, droughts and storms across the world
· World in crisis map, 2007

* Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
* The Guardian
* Friday October 5 2007

Two girls rescue a dog in the floods

Two girls rescue a dog in floods in Trinidad, Bolivia. Photograph: Aizar Raldes/AFP

A record number of floods, droughts and storms around the world this year amount to a climate change "mega disaster", the United Nation's emergency relief coordinator, Sir John Holmes, has warned.

Sir John, a British diplomat who is also known as the UN's under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said dire predictions about the impact of global warming on humanity were already coming true.

"We are seeing the effects of climate change. Any year can be a freak but the pattern looks pretty clear to be honest. That's why we're trying ... to say, of course you've got to deal with mitigation of emissions, but this is here and now, this is with us already," he said.

As a measure of the worsening situation, Ocha, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - part of the UN secretariat that employs Sir John - has issued 13 emergency "flash" appeals so far this year. The number is three more than in 2005, which held the previous record.

Two years ago only half the international disasters dealt with by Ocha had anything to do with the climate; this year all but one of the 13 emergency appeals is climate-related. "And 2007 is not finished. We will certainly have more by the end of the year, I fear," added Sir John, who is in charge of channelling international relief efforts to disaster areas.

More appeals were likely in the coming weeks, as floods hit west Africa. "All these events on their own didn't have massive death tolls, but if you add all these little disasters together you get a mega disaster," he said.

The only one of this year's emergency appeals not connected to the climate was an earthquake in Peru, in August. The others arose after an unprecedented string of catastrophic floods across much of Africa, south Asia and North Korea, and followed severe drought in southern Africa, Nicaragua's category-five hurricane, and extreme climate conditions in Bolivia, which brought both drought and floods.

The Ocha appeals represent the tip of an iceberg since they are launched only with the agreement of the affected country. India was badly affected by floods that hit the rest of the Asian region in July. But unlike its neighbour, Pakistan, India did not call on the UN for help.

Ocha believes that 66 million people were made homeless or were otherwise affected across south Asia. The lives of several million more people were turned upside down across Africa. Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Zambia and Uganda experienced disastrous floods, and Swaziland and Lesotho declared emergencies because of severe drought that reduced harvests by half.

The latest appeal from Ocha was launched yesterday, to try to raise emergency relief funds for Ghana, where more than 400,000 people are reported to be homeless as a result of flooding. Appeals may also be started for Togo and Burkina Faso.

"The flooding in Africa just now is the worst anyone can remember," Sir John said, expressing frustration at how little media attention in the west was being devoted to what he terms creeping climatic catastrophe.

Flooding is likely to be common for a warming planet, and climate change has a double effect - causing an increase in the frequency of storms, while higher atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide curb the ability of plants to draw groundwater.

A climate-change summit is to be held in Bali in December, with the aim of agreeing the principles of a new international treaty to replace Kyoto, the accord that expires in 2012. But the talks face determined US opposition to mandatory emissions targets, and most climate negotiators doubt a real breakthrough can be achieved before the Bush government leaves office in 2009.

Sir John argues that whatever is done on greenhouse gas emissions, money has to be spent now on mitigating the impact that climate change is already having. "You can't actually stop disasters happening but you can do a lot to reduce their impact and reduce people's vulnerability to them by making sure people don't live on the coast or river plains, and that roads are raised and dams are in reasonable shape."

According to the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is leading research on the issue, global warming will disrupt and potentially devastate the lives of billions of people.

And, just as global warming starts to make itself felt, there are signs that "donor fatigue" has set in. Of about $338m (£166m) requested for Ocha's 13 flash appeals this year, only $114m has so far come from donors.


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