Turning up Arctic Heat
Centuries ago, when European explorers came to Canada looking for the elusive Northwest Passage, they were unable to navigate through the pack ice and glacial fields that dominated the landscape. By the end of this century, however, many believe that the Arctic will look quite different than it did back then. The Canadian Arctic is currently at risk from abrupt climate change, which is altering the scenery faster than anyone thought possible. Where sailors once fought for their lives against the cold, the future may see vessels cruising through the same passages with crews dressed in only a few warm layers.
Poles warming faster
In the current period of climatic change, the poles are warming the fastest, with an average increase of 4°C over the last 100 years – double the global average. This has led to a 2.7% per decade decrease in total winter sea ice coverage since 1978, and an even larger decrease in summer sea ice . With climate change predicted to continue, some scientists estimate that there will be no summer sea ice left in the Arctic by the year 2080 .
Thawing permafrost, shrinking glaciers, and other disturbing patterns have led to the establishment of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). This multi-stakeholder group was established by the Arctic Council, an international group that consists of the eight countries that border the Arctic Circle: Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States . Together, these nations work on a variety of Arctic issues that will affect communities throughout the Arctic, including: First Nations governance, marine mammal conservation, and northern fisheries management. In 2004 the ACIA released a major report outlining how climate change will impact wildlife, ecosystems and northern communities.
Long-term polar studies
In March 2007 another major international initiative to study the Arctic region and how it is changing got underway. The fourth International Polar Year (IPY) program is a scientific endeavour with representatives from more than 60 countries. The project is dedicated to improving our understanding of the environmental impacts we are having on the planet's polar regions. The IPY includes more than 50,000 scientists working on 228 projects in the Arctic and the Antarctic. This study, which runs until March 2009, is the fourth of its kind, and the first in 50 years. There have been 3 other IPY studies since 1882, and these have laid the groundwork for most of the information we have about the planet's polar regions. Past IPY studies established some of the permanent research stations that are still used today. Information gathered and studied over the next couple of years will help us better understand the people and the organisms that live in these areas, and their connections to each other. A broad range of climate change concerns will be studied, including topics from the biological, physical, and social sciences .
Implications for Canada
Canada is one of the many nations concerned with the impacts climate change is having on the Arctic, and has put $150 million towards research for the IPY project. This funding will go towards 44 projects that will study climate change, in addition to ecosystems, wildlife and human population health .
Like the early explorers, we too are navigating uncharted territory in terms of global climate change. We have created a planet-wide experiment in altering our ecosystems, and the sensitive Arctic is giving us our first glimpse of where we are headed.
1. Alley, R., et al., Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers. 2007, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. p. 18.
2. Schrank, W.E., The ACIA, climate change and fisheries. Marine Policy, 2007. 31 : p. 5-18.
3.Hassol, S.J., Impacts of Arctic wraming: Arctic climate assessment report. 2004, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment: Cambridge, UK.
4. International Polar Year. 2007, Government of Canada.
5. Gaston, A.J., K. Woo, and K. Elliot, Seabird research on Coats Island, Nunavut, 2007. 2007, Environment Canada: Ottawa.