Thursday, December 29, 2005

Breaking the Ice

The Germans are planning to donate the use of one of their icebreakers during the International Polar Year's two years of field work. At $100,000 a day, that's a sizeable donation to the cause of international scientific study of the polar regions. The German icebreakers have played an integral role in the Census for Marine Life which has been studying the diversity of marine organisms around the world. Meanwhile, the outdated US icebreaker fleet stuggles to meet their existing obligations, contracting with Russian icebreakers to resupply some stations that they are unable to reach.

According to a CSM article entitled "Icebreakers On Thin Ice":
the US's fleet of three heavy icebreakers is sailing along at half steam. The US has one modern vessel, the Healy, which began operating in 2000 and typically remains in the Arctic. The other two - the Polar Star and the Polar Sea - were built in the 1970s and are nearing the end of their design lives.
Long under the control of the US Coast Guard, the article notes the White House recently "wrested control of the ice-breaker fleet from the Coast Guard and handed it to the NSF" since part of the duty of the icebreakers is to conduct scientific studies.

Photo from USCG

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Testing the Waters

Andy Revkin has a new "must read" piece in the New York Times that is part of the series on "The Big Melt" that he's been working on with the Discovery Channel. Touching on the question about whether polar bears will survive the changes occurring in the Arctic, Revkin talks with climatologists who hint that the changes may be slow enough for the bears to adapt.

Bringing a long-term "paleo" perspective into the discussion of global warming, he writes:
Compared with that norm, the rapid buildup of carbon dioxide now from a binge of burning forests, coal and oil lasting for centuries (and counting) is but a blip

In fact, the planet has nothing to worry about from global warming. A hot, steamy earth would be fine for most forms of life. Earth and its biological veneer are far more resilient than human societies, particularly those still mired in poverty or pushed to the margins of the livable.
One of the climate experts that Revkin interviews in the article is Jonathan Overpeck, now director of the Institute for the Study of Planet Earth at the University of Arizona and the former director of the NOAA Paleoclimatology Program, whose Paleo Perspective on Global Warming is one of the most popular of NOAA's websites. Overpeck notes the Arctic "is filled with what amount to flippable climate switches, including natural repositories of carbon, like boggy tundra, that could emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases should the current warming trend pass certain points." Moreover, the recent rise in carbon dioxide may be 200 times faster than past rapid climate transitions, making for a strong case to slow the release of such greenhouse gases to allow as much transition and preparation time as possible.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The Black Hole of Climate Change

While drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has been taken off the table (for now), Senator Ted Stevens, who was the mover and shaker behind the plan, is praying for a really cold winter in hopes that it will motivate people to support his drilling plan.

But perhaps people are starting to connect the dots, not just in the need to protect the calving grounds of caribou, but between cheap oil and gas and issues like melting of much of the world's permafrost by 2100 or the fate of polar bears as sea ice melts, i.e.- what used to be called "global warming" but now falls under the rubric of "climate change."

Mainstream media doesn't often help in connecting these dots since the calculus of how far polar bears can swim and what might happen a century from now is beyond what the churn of the news cycle can deal with....even if they took the issue seriously. But when Evangelicals and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger agree with climate experts in saying "the debate is over," that the dots linking humans activities to impacts on the climate and Earth system do in fact connect, it seems to make the choice very stark: Cheap gas or polar bears? Cheap gas or sinkholes, ruined roads and pipelines, rising sea levels, massive shifts in habitats, etc.? (Gee, it's such a hard choice!)

But, naturally, it's not that simple or black and white. In fact, even if gas in the US cost $5 or $10 a gallon forcing conservation and cut-backs in consumption, and even if overnight the planet stablized fossil fuel emmissions, we'd still be facing melting sea ice and permafrost, polar bears tredding water for their dear lives. But what to do, especially those of us who have yet to ween ourselves from cheap gas? In other words, us.

For starters, how about an honest discussion about where we're at, where we're heading, how we got here, and what needs to be done so our children don't inherit a proverbial black hole.....Or, given the fact that some change is inevitable and irreversible, at the very least, let's give them the tools and wherewithal so they have a clue of what to do with the black hole they do inherit.

Photo courtesy Vladimir Romanovsky, Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Caribou Beings

The last large mammal migration in North America takes place in the northern-most reaches of the continent where caribou travel across snow and tundra to their calving grounds near the Arctic sea. Beginning in early April, 2003, Karsten Heuer and Leanne Allison followed the 123,000-member Porcupine Herd from near Old Crow, Yukon where the herd winters to the calving grounds in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge's twenty-five mile wide coatal grasslands on the edge of the Arctic sea. They returned to with the herd to the wintering grounds in early September. Theirs is a powerful and compelling tale.

The two have a book and film about their 1500 km journey, and a website, Being Caribou, with additional information about their insights into the lives of these incredible beings. Karsten, trained as a scientist, was interviewed on the KGNU program "How on Earth"; you'll need to pick the 2005-12-20 program, pick your format and fast forward through Jim Hightower.

There's also an animation of the herd's movements during the 2003 season from the Journey North site. Anyone needing a refresher course on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can check out the archives Fish and Wildlife Service site "Potential Impacts of Proposed Oil and Gas Development on the Arctic Refuge's Coastal Plain."

And let's not forget about the endangered ice worms which are of keen interest to astro-biologists.

Photo Alaska Fish & Wildlife

Monday, December 19, 2005

Singing Berg

By now you've likely read about the singing iceberg B-09A (NOT pictured in the NOAA image above), but have you heard it? Now you can listen to an MP3 of the berg. Found near the Ekstroem ice shelf on Antarctica's South Atlantic coast by scientists from Germany's Alfred Wegener Institute, authors Müller, Schlindwein, Eckstaller, and Miller write in Science:
Sustained harmonic tremor signals were recorded by the seismographs of the German Neumayer Base seismological network in western Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica. These tremor episodes, lasting up to 16 hours, were recorded up to 820 kilometers from the source. Their spectra show narrow peaks with fundamental frequencies ranging from 0.5 to 6 hertz, more than 30 integer harmonic overtones, and frequency gliding, resembling volcanic tremor. Frequency-wave number analysis suggested a moving source, which was recognized as iceberg B-09A traveling along the coast of eastern Antarctica. The most probable tremor sources are fluid-flow-induced vibrations inside the iceberg's tunnel/crevasse systems.
Their press release notes:
Tracking the signal, the scientists found a 50 by 20 kilometer iceberg that had collided with an underwater peninsula and was slowly scraping around it. "Once the iceberg stuck fast on the seabed it was like a rock in a river," said scientist Vera Schlindwein. "The water pushes through its crevasses and tunnels at high pressure and the iceberg starts singing.
Since these frequencies are below range of the human ear, they have been sped to the point where they sound like busy bees.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

All in the Same Boat

A recent Arctic Leaders meeting in mid-December in Hay River, Northwest Territories, evidently left some of the local participants concerned that thousands of scientists involved with the International Polar Year (IPY) would soon be coming to study them in the aloof, superior "we're scientists and we're smart" way that historically and understandably has rubbed people the wrong way. According to an article on the CBC website,
The IPY, scheduled for March 2007 to March 2009, is expected to be the largest scientific polar research program ever. Dozens of nations around the world will spend billions sending 50,000 people to studying the land, water, atmosphere and life of the planet's poles.
Roy Fabian, the chief of the K'atlodeechee First Nation of Hay River, N.W.T., says it's more important to share traditional knowledge amongst families, than with international scientists. "I'm concerned about passing my traditional knowledge on to our children. So how is IPY going to help us in that process?" he asked.
Good points. I'd be worried, too, if a bunch of "experts" (who usually seem to be white males with beards) from out of town came to study me and my neighbors in our native habitat and started asking questions and taking pictures.

But IPY is, among other things, a huge opportunity to break the ice, so to speak, to turn the tide (to mix metaphors) for all of us, no matter where we live or what our background. IPY is about water (frozen or not). It's about climate. It's about how, one way or another, everything is connected to everything. And it's about how in our lifetimes we'll all be dealing with subtle and profound changes relative to water resources, eco-systems, climate and the human systems that depend on them.

IPY can become a new, participatory form of collaboration and inquiry into our changing planet, a chance to learn and share and build strong communities together. And in fact there are plans to tap from the inside out the wisdom and experience of the local Arctic communities, who are already witnessing profound changes in their habitat, dealing with strange things happening with weather and seasonal changes, and have much to share with the rest of the world about their observations and experience.

Clearly not everyone at the Hay River meeting was skeptical of IPY.
But delegates like Brandon Kyikavichik, 20, of Old Crow, Yukon, says aboriginal people need to put aside their differences to work with other cultures and countries on international issues like climate change. "It's imperative that we work together on this because we're all in this together. We live together, we work together, we die together," he said.
Indeed. Couldn't have said it better. We're all in the same boat....and we need to chip in together and rally around a truly worthy cause.

Photo "Coming Home" by the famous white, bearded male photographer Edward Curtis from the Library of Congress' Curtis Collection.

Pagophile Gift for Holidays

Looking for a last minute gift for that ice-lover (pagophile) on your shopping list? You might check our Mariana Gosnell's "Ice: The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance." She covers sea ice, lake ice, river ice, space ice, ice games, frostbite... and, as they say, much, much more. I can't say I've read it (yet) and hope Santa brings me a copy so I can sit around the fire, releasing stored solar energy into the atmosphere, and think cold thoughts.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Keep it Cool

Of all the inventions that revolutionized the 20th century, right up there with cars and airplanes, dependent on energy, usually electricity, is refrigeration. Being able to plug in a box and mimic a controlled polar environment, where one can preserve foods and other "perishables" that would rot and/or loose their freshness, is a major jump in the evolutionary ladder, right up there with going to the moon and large-scale cumbustion of fossil fuels.

The fridge in the photo is from Senator Richard Lugar's web site from an outing to Albania. The contents? "This freezer at Pokrov houses various strains of anthrax and other deadly pathogens. The freezer is located next to a window with one small security alarm attached. Nunn-Lugar funds have helped increase security at this facility so vaccine research can safely continue." Hmmmm. Good. I know I have some strange things in the back of my fridge, and unknown frozen stuff in the depths of the freezer, but no strains of anthrax.