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Global Warming Has Arrived: Arctic Study

by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON – With only eight weeks left before the elves finish their work and Santa Claus mounts his sleigh, an eight-nation study on global warming co-sponsored by the United States has concluded that the North Pole is melting beneath St. Nick.

The 144-page report, which is due to be officially released a week after Tuesday’s elections, says the accelerated warming of the globe – which it blames mostly on the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced by the industrial age – is transforming the Arctic region dramatically.

The Arctic “is now experience some of the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth,” according to the report, which was obtained by the New York Times and the Washington Post this weekend, apparently from European sources that wanted to publicize its findings before Tuesday.

The European Union (EU), some of whose member states co-sponsored the study, strongly supports the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse emissions, while President George W. Bush has rejected the accord. His Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, has called for the U.S. to rejoin negotiations on the treaty’s terms.

“Over the next 100 years, climate change is expected to accelerate, contributing to major physical, ecological, social and economic changes, many of which have already begun,” the report stated, adding that greenhouse gas emissions have clearly become “the dominant factor” in the Arctic’s changing climate.

The study, whose conclusions were disclosed as the Russian government, another co-sponsor, completes its ratification of the Protocol this week, was based on the work of nearly 300 scientists, as well as elders from native – mainly Inuit communities living in the Arctic regions of North America and Eurasia – over the past four years.

The governmental sponsors of the study include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, and Sweden, as well as the United States.

It confirms earlier studies that the Arctic has warmed and is warming at a much faster rate than the Earth as a whole. While the Earth has warmed by roughly one degree Fahrenheit over the past century – that is, the bulk of the industrial age – temperature increases in the Arctic area have been as much as ten times greater.

That warming has produced dramatic, across-the-board effects on both the climate and the land. Once solid tundra or permafrost has turned ever soggier, while animal, fish, and plant species that have thrived in the region for millennia are either moving northward or dying out. The report predicted that polar bears, ice-loving seals and indigenous people who rely on the two large mammals for food are likely to be devastated by the changes, particularly the melting of sea ice throughout the Arctic.

“The major message is that climate change is here and now in the Arctic,” Dr. Robert Corell, a U.S. oceanographer who directed the assessment, told the Times.

Not all of these changes are due solely to changes in temperature; also cited are a number of other human-caused factors, including overfishing, growing human population, and rising levels of ultra-violet radiation from the depleted ozone layer, as contributing to the change.

“The sum of these factors threatens to overwhelm the adaptive capacity of some Arctic populations and ecosystems,” according to a section of the report quoted by the Times.

But the consequences of what is happening to the Arctic are certain to be global in scope, according to Gunnar Palsson, the chairman of the Arctic Council, who told the Post the region should be seen as “sort of a bellweather” for the rest of the planet. “In order to contain these problems, we cannot think in terms of regional solutions.”

Indeed, the melting of Arctic ice, which is taking place at a faster-than-anticipated pace, could have dire consequences on coastal areas as a result of the resulting rise in sea levels.

The melting of the two-mile-high icepack on Greenland by itself will send sea level as much as 25 feet higher, washing away low-lying islands in the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean and heavily populated coastal areas from Bangladesh to New Orleans and the Mississippi delta.

Even if the U.S. joins the Kyoto Protocol – which will take legal effect 90 days from Moscow’s formal ratification -- the results will be too little and too late to reverse the changes that are well underway in the Arctic because carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have been built up in the atmosphere for more than a century and cannot be dispersed or broken down. At best, implementation of the treaty will slow the rate of change over the long term.

The Protocol calls for a seven-percent reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s industrialized countries below 1990 levels by the year 2012 but does not yet require cuts in emissions by other major greenhouse-gas producing nations, notably China and India. Washington’s adherence to the treaty is nonetheless considered critical, because the country is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter by far, accounting for about 25 percent of annual global emissions.

Bush has opposed the treaty on the grounds that it will reduce economic growth, an assertion challenged by many economists and scientists who say it will make U.S. industry more globally competitive, particular as the rest of the world develops new technologies to reduce emissions. The new study’s main conclusions were to some extent anticipated in September in Senate hearings in which Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a representative of the 155,000 Inuit who live in Greenland, Canada, Alaska, and Russia, testified about the changes her people were enduring.

“We find ourselves at the very cusp of a defining event in the history of this planet,” she told Sen. John McCain, who is co-sponsoring legislation to require reductions in greenhouse emissions, and other senators. “The Earth is literally melting.”

She pointed in particular to the growing unpredictability in the weather, melting of permafrost and glaciers, the retreat of sea ice, and the presence of previously unknown species, such as robins and mosquitoes and other insects. “Protect the Arctic and you will save the planet,” she said. “Use us as your early-warning system.”

The new study suggests that there may be some benefits to the changes being wrought by warming, including the possibility of longer growing seasons further north and even rebounds in dwindling fish stocks. In addition, the retreat of sea ice may make off-shore drilling for oil and gas more feasible and enhance trans-Arctic navigation.

Many scientists have argued that the warming trend could help produce bigger plants that in turn will be able to take more carbon out of the atmosphere and slow the warming rate accordingly.

But a study regarding a 20-year project to test that thesis published in September by Britain’s ‘Nature’ magazine found that warming could actually release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and thus contribute to greater warming. It found that while tundra plants did indeed become more productive at the surface, releases of carbon and nitrogen from deep-soil tundra layers more than offset their ability to store more carbon.

Copyright © 2004, - Published on Monday, November 1, 2004 by

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