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Forecast: Easier passage through the Arctic

Part 3: The Arctic melt

An undated handout photo from the Center for Northern Studies shows the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf disintegrating. Canada's Arctic ice shelves are disappearing at an incredibly rapid rate, a top scientist said on Sept. 3, 2008. (Denis Sarrazin/Center for Northern Studies/Reuters)

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.”