Volunteering at the Arctic's Edge
If there is any place in the world where the effects of global warming are instantly visible, it is the Arctic. The ice is melting, the ground is thawing, plants and animals are moving. The changes are unfolding year by year. And the problem is only likely to get worse in the future. Climate change appears to be progressing in the Arctic more quickly than in any other region on Earth. With vast amounts of greenhouse gasses locked up in the frozen ground, extensive thawing will have huge consequences for the ecology of the whole planet...
Earthwatch and Shell Project Better World have been working in partnership since 1999, providing Shell staff members with the opportunity to volunteer on Earthwatch research projects worldwide. In October 2008, I had the opportunity to join the Earthwatch expedition Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge. I was particularly motivated to join this specific project because global warming and sea level rise are among the largest challenges facing mankind.
Our mission was to assist the study of the Arctic ecosystem and permafrost changes by Earthwatch scientists from the University of Alberta under the leadership of Dr. Peter Kershaw. The Arctic tundra accounts for around a quarter of the planet's stored carbon dioxide and methane, locked in a layer of frozen peat, the permafrost.
Our group of nine volunteers had gathered from as far afield as Australia, Netherlands, UK, Ireland, USA, and Brunei, but we all soon adapted to the routine of Arctic life. Rising at 6am for a hearty cooked breakfast in the canteen, followed by a briefing in the lecture room, we would then head out across the tundra in our mini-van towards one of our 11 study sites. Our task during 10 days as volunteers was to collect data on the permafrost depth and the abundance/viability of vegetation at the 11 study sites in the area where the tree line meets the tundra. All this data will provide a baseline against which anticipated future changes in northern ecosystems can be quantified.
There are indications from the early data that climate change is indeed affecting the physical environment around Hudson Bay. Sea ice extent is shrinking, the winter snowpack is less extensive, the snowpack melts earlier, and permafrost is degrading. Biological evidence of changes is also mounting; treeline tree growth has been enhanced, plant community types are shifting north, and ecosystem characteristics are changing.
Another key part of the project involves analysing the changes of permafrost depth using timelapse Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) surveys, but the most important job of all was that of the patrol person who accompanied us on the lookout for bears, ensuring our safety while we collected data. A polar bear is very dangerous but an encounter with one is also a great wildlife experience. And indeed I did see and photograph a young 300kg bear, luckily from the safety of our van. During late autumn, when we were there, the bears gather on the shores of Lake Hudson in large numbers as the ice freezes and prepare for their first feed in four months. Their primary food source, the ringed seals that live in the Arctic Ocean, can only be hunted and killed on the sea ice.
It was sobering to discover how climate change is already affecting the polar bears of Hudson Bay. The extent of the Arctic Sea ice in summer is now only 60 per cent of what it was in the 1970s, and the ice breaks up three weeks earlier than it did just 30 years ago. As polar bears are unable to catch their prey without ice, there has inevitably been a sharp decline in numbers, and the future looks bleak for this species.
Each evening, we gathered to listen to Pete Kershaw's lectures on global warming and to discuss the implications of the studies. Pete himself confessed to mixed feelings. On the one hand, he told us, it was exciting to be working on a project where scientific change can be seen and measured over such short timescales. He added, "On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that we are seeing the effects of global warming, and the long-term prognosis is not a happy one."
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says that the evidence of manmade global warming is "unequivocal". The IPCC predicted in 2007 that ""melting glaciers, disappearing ice sheets and warming water could lift sea levels by as much as 60cm by 2100, displacing millions of people". More recent studies predict sea level rise up to 1.5 metres by 2100. There are also shifts in weather patterns. Extreme weather events like hurricanes will increase further.
The possible solutions we discussed were many and varied, but finally, however, we agreed that the only way to avert a climate change-induced crisis is by action far beyond the modest ambitions of the Kyoto Protocol. We need to put a price on CO2, and replace Kyoto with a more effective treaty that substantially caps global CO2 emissions and encourages nations to invest together in efficient ways to reduce global warming pollution quickly, including by sharply reducing deforestation. This would require not only a strengthening of political will, but a prolonged period off international co-operation in a world where the vast majority of the public still believes that catastrophic climate change isn't happening, doesn't matter, or can't be stopped.
So how do you persuade governments to pass laws designed to bring about a restructuring of the global economy and stimulate green technologies? And how do you persuade the world's powerful corporations to think more about the sustainability of the planet than the short-term interests of their shareholders? The answer, we agreed, could start in a simple fashion; spread the word and persuade enough people that the problem is real and immediate. This is the first step towards change. Only then will governments match rhetoric with action. And lead our lives by example; even small actions such as limiting the use of air con and car, or using your own shopping bag, all help to make a difference. After all, if we do not take action now, the consequences are not just for those of us alive today, but will be particularly serious for our children and our children's children.
Report by Peter Engbers.
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