I’m aboard the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise, just out of Tromsø in northern Norway, to journey far north, to the edge of the Arctic sea ice.
We’ll be there for the sea ice minimum, the moment each year where the sea ice level is at its lowest, and where we can see the full impact of man-made climate change on this fragile and beautiful region of the world. We will be witnessing history - this year ice levels have already reached the lowest level ever recorded, and melting continues, at a rate of 40,000 sq km a day.
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The Arctic acts as the world’s air conditioner, the whiteness of the ice reflecting sun back into space. As global warming causes the ice to melt, the dark sea beneath absorbs sunlight, heating up the planet even more.
On board the ship are several of the world’s leading ice scientists, from the US National Snow and Ice data Centre (NSIDC) and Cambridge University, who say we’ve lost more than 50% of summer sea ice surface in just 30 years. Our trip to the edge of the ice will allow the scientists to conduct crucial research into ice thickness, and therefore the loss in volume. It will also allow us to bear witness to this moment – a polar emergency.
The Arctic is the canary in the coalmine of global warming: It is the first, most visible and most dramatic impact; but although distant to most of us, it will affect us all. This summer’s weather occurrences – droughts in the US, months of rain in Europe, were caused by the jet stream which may be changing with Arctic melting. As we move towards ice free summers – possibly within the next decade – weather patterns will change in ways we do not yet know.
In a sick twist of irony, this is also the year that big oil moves into the Arctic, in the form of global companies, Shell and Gazprom. The burning of fossil fuels has caused our planet to heat up, changing the seasons and endangering millions of people; but oil companies see the ice free Arctic as a business opportunity, and are already moving in to start drilling under the ocean. As I write, Shell has just received a permit to start work in Alaska while Gazprom are making preparations to drill in the Russian Arctic.
Greenpeace are at the forefront of the fight against the new oil rush in the Arctic – many of my fellow crew members were part of the action last week which brought Gazprom’s work to a standstill for several days.
Preparing for the trip, I’ve been thinking about what the Arctic means to me and also to the world. Two weeks ago I sat around a campfire in rural England listening to a traditional Chukchi story, and when I told my six-year old son I was coming here, he asked if I would see Santa Claus. I think we all have an emotional connection with the Arctic; it is a place of myths and stories, of childhood dreams. It is one of the last truly wild places on earth, the greatest challenge for explorers; home to fantastic creatures such as narwhals, terns and polar bears. We need wild and faraway corners of the planet to exist, and not just in our memories but for generations to come.
Sara Ayech is an Arctic campaigner.
Photo: © Nick Cobbing / Greenpeace