Forecast: Easier passage through the Arctic

Climate change is changing the way we live, but not always with an obviously negative impact. For example, the melting of Arctic ice in the summer has the potential to make shipping possible all year round and to cut the amount of time it takes for the global delivery of goods.

CHURCHILL MANITOBA, Canada — David Barber’s office looks like many scientist’s offices — sparsely furnished with a simple, wood-paneled desk.

It looked like it could anywhere, unless you look out the window — which was in fact a porthole — and see the river skipping past. This office was on the NGCC Amundsen, a former Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, that Canadian scientists bought from the government and refurbished as a research vessel.

Barber, a professor of environment, earth, and resources at the University of Manitoba, and one of the world’s leading experts on sea ice, had just finished a stint as chief scientist on the first leg of a journey that would last more than a year to study the effects of climate change across the Canadian Arctic.

He was temporarily handing the project over to a team of doctors, nurses and scientists who would spend the next six weeks conducting a health survey on the Nunavut coast. His bags were in the next room.

“I used to be a climate change skeptic,” he said.

“I figured that this used to be a part of the natural variability and the natural cycle, until about 10 years ago, when it really started to dawn on me that we’re headed into a very strong trend downwards.”

Barber’s conversion began in 1991 when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, throwing dust and ash deep into the stratosphere. The aerosol particles formed a haze, dimming the sun. Global temperatures briefly dropped by one degree Fahrenheit.

“I thought, if that happens with dust particles, why can’t we be doing it with gas particles?”  Barber said.

“I started paying more attention to what was going on with temperatures in the Arctic,” he said.
“We started to see changes in the ice. We started to see thaw holes in the bottom of the ice. It was actually melting from underneath and not from on top. We started talking to the Inuit about this, and they said, in the region they were in, ‘This never happens. We don’t know what’s going on. It’s like the ocean is warmer.’ For them climate change is a very real thing. They’ve even started to develop new words for things they used to never have before, like ‘sunburn’ and ‘bumblebee.’"

“We started to do fall projects where we couldn’t work on the ice, because it just wouldn’t form,” he said. “We couldn’t get out onto it. I started having to do things like build and design special boats that would allow us to get out on this ice when we used to use snow machines. The evidence just bombards you.”

In September 2007, the European Space Agency announced that the Northwest Passage was fully navigable for the first time since records began. Since Roald Amundsen’s successful crossing, 110 boats have successfully made it through the passage. Eighty were icebreakers or commercial ships with hardened hulls. But as the ice has receded, recreational ships have started to try their luck.

“There was hardly any ice,” Roger Swanson, a 76-year-old Minnesota pig farmer turned yachtsman, told the Wall Street Journal as he finished the trip. He had tried twice before, in 1994 and 2005, but had been turned back when the passage froze. “It has been a beautiful trip,” he said.

The North Pole’s ice grows and recedes with the seasons. In the darkness of winter, it fills in the Arctic Ocean, pushes up against northern Russia, slides down the coasts of Greenland, and stretches tentacles into the waterways of the Canadian Archipelago.

It seals up Hudson Bay and pushes through the Bering Strait all the way to Siberia. Under the summer sun, it forms a roundish cap, clinging to Greenland and northern Canada. Scientists track changes in the ice by measuring the amount left in the fall at the end of the melt season, when the sun starts to slip away. In 2007, the ice cover reached a new minimum, a 23 percent drop from the previous record in 2005.

A stretch of frozen white the size of Alaska, Texas and California was suddenly running with waves.

If the ice cover continues to shrink at its historic rate, by 2050 summers at the top of the world will be ice-free all the way to the North Pole.

It’s much more likely that the ice will disappear far faster, as breaking floes accelerate the warming of the Arctic.

“You have black ocean covered with a white surface,” Barber said.

“So when you get a lot of sunlight in the summertime, that white surface reflects the light back into space again. Remove that ice cover, and you’ve got a black surface, and it absorbs like crazy. All this energy coming in from the sun that used to be reflected to space is now being absorbed by the ocean.”

“Climate change is really changing the Arctic from an environment that used to have multi-year sea ice in the center, which is ice that survived a summer and went on the next winter to grow again,” said Barber. “It’s getting rid of that kind of ice and replacing it with first-year sea ice.”

The difference between first-year ice and the older ice of the central Arctic is the difference between limestone and marble. New ice never thickens more than two yards. Multi-year ice can grow to be eight yards thick. Leached of salt, it can be as hard as concrete.

“First-year sea ice is much easier to work with,” said Barber.

“It’s softer. It’s thinner. It’s more pliable. You can design icebreakers or drill ships to withstand first-year sea ice quite simple,” he said. “So when you say you have a seasonally ice-free Arctic, what that really means is you no longer have multi-year sea ice,” Barber said.

“It means shipping throughout the year will be very possible.” 

Forecast: The global consequences of climate change

Part 1: Why America Should Care
The Florida Keys are sinking
Can insurance cover the costs of climate change?
Who will be able to afford to live on the coast?

Part 2: The Spread of Disease
Pathogens find new habitats
Countries could backslide into poverty
How disease relates to carbon dioxide

Part 3: The Arctic Melt
Easier passage through the Arctic
A scramble for control of the Arctic
Opening the Arctic to damage

(Stephan Faris is the GlobalPost environment correspondent. His new book is "Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley.")