November 12, 2004 Features & Images » Feature Story

Global climate change most apparent in Arctic 

Robins have been spotted as far north as Iqualuit and hunters have fallen through routinely frozen ice – clear indications that global warming has indeed arrived in the Arctic.

For the past four years, more than 300 scientists and indigenous experts from over eight circumpolar nations have participated in a comprehensive Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA). Led by the Arctic Council, this detailed, scientific report, considered one of the most comprehensive studies ever compiled on climate change, addresses a multitude of issues connected to Arctic climate change.

The 1,800-page report, released on Nov. 8 in Reykjavik, Iceland, confirms that global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate, with the most profound changes occurring in the Arctic. According to ACIA, the key forces driving global warming are human influences, resulting from increased emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases.

The key findings of the ACIA report are:

• The Arctic region is warming rapidly, with its average annual temperature increasing by almost twice that of the rest of the world. The greatest effects will be felt in Alaska, north-western Canada and Siberia, where scientists are predicting an increase in temperature of 3-5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. This temperature increase will lead to the melting of glaciers and sea ice, and a shortening of the snow season.

• Arctic vegetation zones and the treeline are predicted to shift northwards, bringing wide-ranging impacts as the forest replaces the existing tundra. This may also lead to an increase in insect outbreaks and forest fires.

• Existing habitat and feeding grounds for polar bears, seals and other northern species will shrink as a result of melting sea ice cover.

• Many coastal communities, especially in north-western B.C. and the Yukon, will be subjected to increased storms. The thawing permafrost and the sea-level rise may weaken coastal land areas, flooding low-lying areas and intensifying erosion damage.

• The thawing ground may disrupt oil and gas extraction, and forestry operations by shortening periods during which ice roads and tundra are frozen and permit overland travel.

• Elevated UV radiation has exposed the current generation of young Arctic people to UV doses 30 per cent higher than in any prior generation.

Whether the projected change is viewed as positive or negative depends on one’s self interest. For example, an ice-free Arctic could turn the Northwest Passage into a favoured shipping route, almost 45 per cent shorter than the Suez Canal route. This would bring renewed interest in the Arctic region from neighbouring countries.

On the other hand, the thawing tundra could shorten the season needed to support heavy drilling equipment; thereby reducing the number of days that oil and gas exploration and drilling equipment can be used.

Dr. Terry Prowse, professor and research chair, Climate Impacts on Water Resources at the University of Victoria, compares the Arctic to a "hot spot" — an early indicator of climate change, much like a canary in a coal mine. Prowse believes that the warming of the Arctic region will have direct implications on B.C.’s tourism, forestry, agriculture, health care and oil/gas sectors.

Canada’s federal government appears committed to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions through its involvement with the Kyoto Protocol and ACIA. There is even talk that Ottawa is considering the creation of the Ministry of Circumpolar Affairs, dedicated solely to issues in the Canada’s North. According to the Oct. 5 Speech Throne, "the Government of Canada is committed to supporting science and research in the North, both on our own and in collaboration with our circumpolar partners. Let there be no doubt, we will protect sovereignty in the Arctic."

The report concludes by stating that although many of these impacts are inevitable, the warming levels could be reduced or stabilized by reducing global emissions over the course of this century. According to ACIA, climate change in the Arctic deserves and requires urgent attention by decision-makers and the public world-wide.

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