Arctic meltdown should be an urgent wake-up call

by Melanie Duchin

August 7, 2009

After spending more than five weeks at the Petermann Glacier, the Arctic Sunrise began its transit down the west coast of Greenland at around midnight Wednesday night. Our primary goal at Petermann Glacier was to document the calving of the glacier — an ice island about 100km2 is expected to fall into the sea any day now — with remote time-lapse cameras perched on 1000 m cliffs overlooking the glacier. Even though the ice island has not yet calved, our time-lapse cameras remain in place, ready to document the glacier’s disintegration should it happen this summer.

Greenpeace image: Arctic Sunrise at Robeson ice bridge
The Arctic Sunrise reaches ‘the ice bridge’ in the Robeson channel, at 82.4 North, near the border between Greenland and Canada. This is the Southernmost extent of the summer sea ice which usually extends much further south into the Nares Strait, but has receded dramatically in recent years. © Greenpeace/Nick Cobbing

People have been asking if I’m disappointed that Petermann Glacier did not calve a large ice island while we were there. My honest answer is no.

From the early stages when we first started planning this expedition, I was keenly aware that ice conditions in Nares Strait meant that the ship had only a 50/50 chance of reaching Petermann Glacier in the first place. In reality, our passage north was virtually clear of sea ice – we sailed right to the top of the strait, reaching the ice bridge that is holding back the Arctic Ocean’s thick, multi-year sea ice on June 29th, just 445 nautical miles from the North Pole. The fact that we actually reached Petermann Glacier at all, and then had more than five weeks to conduct research into the dynamics that influence its (and nearby Humboldt Glacier’s) sensitivity to global warming, was truly an unexpected bonus. Together, Petermann and Humboldt glaciers drain a full ten percent of the ice that flows from the immense Greenland Ice Sheet into the sea, with serious implications for sea level rise the world over.

The independent science team on board the ship gathered a lot of important data in a part of the world that is remote and challenging to reach. With the support of the Arctic Sunrise and her crew, the scientists were able to conduct glacier and oceanographic studies that will help fill the gaps in their own and the greater scientific community’s understanding of how Greenland’s glaciers and the ice sheet react to global warming. In the last seven years, the Greenland Ice Sheet’s contribution to sea level rise more than doubled, due to a surprisingly rapid and unpredicted loss of ice. There is still so much that scientists do not understand about how Greenland’s glaciers and ice sheet are reacting to global warming. It’s a stunning example of how the impacts of global warming on the ground are outpacing scientific models, which is the case throughout the Arctic and in much of the world.

Greenpeace image: Scientists in the Arctic
The ‘whirlpool’ and crack on the Petermann glacier. Geophysicist Dr Richard Bates, of the Scottish Oceans Institute at the University of St. Andrews, takes ‘casts’ of temperature pressure current and salinity. © Greenpeace/Nick Cobbing

Ironically, while the Arctic Sunrise was conducting research on glaciers in northwest Greenland, the Waxman-Markey bill was being further weakened by Congress and fossil fuel industry lobbyists whose goal is to protect business as usual at the expense of protecting the climate. The bill reflects a huge gap between what US lawmakers are willing to do and what climate science is saying the planet needs. It’s clear that no one in the US government, including President Obama himself, is prepared to do what’s necessary to prevent climate catastrophe.

Any bill that does not include science-based targets of at least 40 percent reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 falls far short of what is needed. Even emissions reductions of 20 or 30 percent by 2020 won’t cut it; it’s just not possible to save the climate a little bit at a time. Obama and Congress can’t shut their eyes and hope this issue will somehow go away. It won’t. In coming years and decades we will all wonder what the heck they were thinking when they failed to address the problem with meaningful action.

I know it’s naïve, but I wish President Obama could spend just one day with us on board this ship, talking with the independent scientists on board about how climate change is affecting Greenland’s glaciers and ice sheet, and in turn, what it means for the US and the rest of the planet. He would leave the ship understanding that anything less than science-based targets in US and global climate policy condemns the world to the worst impacts of climate change, which, by the way, will ravage the economy and health care system in incalculable ways. The economic problems caused by sub-prime mortgages, irresponsible lending and bank failures will seem like child’s play compared with what continued and unabated global warming will cause.

The Arctic Sunrise is now heading south toward the next stages of this expedition. Independent science teams will be joining us to conduct research on Greenland’s east coast glaciers as well as sea ice. We will continue our work here in Greenland, using every tactic we can to amplify the voices of scientists who are on the cutting edge of global warming research. Our hope is that both their work and voices will form part of the impetus for Congress and President Obama to take real action on global warming in the four months that remain before the Copenhagen climate talks in December.

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