Arctic environment melts before our eyes

Feature story - 7 August, 2002
If you could join the Greenpeace time ship and travel back 100 years, what would you see? You would be lucky to see one of the early cars, you would likely see mountains of coal and the beginnings of our fossil fuel dependence. And if you could travel deep within the Arctic circle you would see snow and ice which today is only a distant memory in fading photographs.

Greenpeace activist Erika Augustinsson comparing a photo of Blomstrandbreen (1928) with the present situation.

We all do it. We return to a spot from our childhood or youth, stand itthat same spot and marvel at how the world has changed. Sometimes thechanges are subtle, even unnoticeable, other times, we are appalled andalarmed by how the world has changed around us, seemingly overnight.

But what if you could visit one of the most remote areas of theplanet a hundred years later and see how it has changed? How activitiesthat take place far from sight have a lasting impact on ourenvironment. Would the changes be so subtle?

Not in the far reaches of the Arctic circle, the changes areobvious. Almost a hundred years later, standing where researchers fromthe Norwegian Polar Institute took photos documenting glaciers on theisland Svalbard, we can see that there have been remarkable changes,and not for the better.

1922 image of man looking at Blomstrandbreen glacier courtesy the Norwegian Polar Institute, 2002 image of Greenpeace activist looking at same glacier copyright Greenpeace and Alsand.Theisland is more than 600 kilometres from the northern coast of Norway.The name Svalbard means "the land with the cold coasts" and about twothirds of the landmass is covered in glaciers. It is a sad irony thattemperature increases due to climate change means that the glaciers ofSvalbard are retreating.

It doesn't take specialised scientific instruments or even a longmeasuring tape to know that the landscape has changed dramatically onSvalbard over the last hundred years.

The glaciers in the Kongsfjorden area, where we documented thelandscape during our voyage, began an almost continuous retreat around1900. Blomstrandbreen has retreated around two kilometres in the last80 years. Since 1960, the average retreat of the glacier has been about35 metres per year, and even higher in the last decade.

1918 image of man in a boat in front of Blomstrandbreen glacier courtesy the Norwegian Polar Institute, 2002 image of Greenpeace boat in front of same glacier copyright Greenpeace and Alsand.Theresults of our research came as no great surprise. Glaciers in thisspectacular Arctic region are showing an overall retreat because ofhigher temperatures. And it fits the pattern of mountain glaciersaround the world. Glaciers are on the wane and we risk losing themaltogether if we don't massively reduce greenhouse emissions.

Glacier retreats are one of the most visible and reliable signs thatwarming and climate change is real - not just figures in a scientificreport. In this way, they are also important indicators of globalclimate change.

The blame can be put squarely on human activity. Our addiction tofossil fuels releases millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into theatmosphere, and this is what is causing temperatures to rise, and ourfuture to melt before our eyes.

Glaciers are more than just magnificent landscapes of ice and snow.Around the world glaciers provide water for millions of people, animalsand plants. Increased temperatures brought about by greenhousepolluting fuels like coal, oil and gas, are destroying glaciers. Unlesswe break our addiction to fossil fuels, we risk the wholesaledestruction of glaciers, which would have a huge impact on billions oflives.

Climate change is a global problem - not only do we risk losing theworld's glaciers, but we face many other impacts such as increasedfloods, droughts and storms, loss of coral reefs, sea level rise andrapid spread of vector borne diseases.

World leaders are slow to take up the warning so we have come to theends of the Earth, literally, to remind governments of what is at stakeif they do not take action at this month's Earth Summit inJohannesburg. Climate change is hurting the whole world, not just theArctic, and clean renewable energy is a crucial. They must get it rightnow, or there will be many places we won't be able to stand and ponderthe past.

Read about the crew experiences onboard the Rainbow Warrior in the Arctic Circle.

More on Glaciers:

Introduction to the issue pdf file (9k)

Background on global glacial retreat pdf file (16k)

Send in your Glacier pictures


Alpine Glacial Retreat (in german)

Backgrounders on the individual Glaciers:

Franz Josef - New Zealand, pdf (7k)

Grinnell - US, pdf (6k)

Orubare - Uganda, pdf (7k)

Qori Kalis - Peru, pdf (7k)

Pasterze - Austria, pdf (8k)

Imja - Nepal, pdf (10k)

Historic images used by kind permission of the Norwegian Polar Institute.