Santa seeks new headquarters


THINGS ARE not looking good for Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Arctic ice loss this year was the second largest on record, with more open sea and thinner ice cover overall.

The loss, only barely beaten by the extreme melt seen in 2007, came as no surprise to ice and glacier specialists around the world. The last five years have seen the five lowest extents of sea ice recorded by continuous satellite monitoring.

Scientists have watched the trend towards both reduced ice cover and thinner ice developing over the past 30 years. “The sea ice is not only declining, the pace of the decline is becoming more drastic,” says Dr Joey Comiso, a senior scientist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Maryland.

The point of minimum ice this year occurred on September 9th when sea-ice extent was 4.33 million sq km. The average extent between 1979 to 2000 was 6.76 million sq km, according to the scientists, who attribute the loss to the onward march of climate change. September Arctic ice extent has fallen by about 12 per cent per decade in the years since 1979, the research data shows.

The Arctic has become a focus point for monitoring climate change. Global conditions mean the Arctic region generally is warming faster than other parts of the northern hemisphere.

The Antarctic Peninsula is another “hotspot” where ice is receding as a result of climate warming. In the peninsula region, warming has triggered the release of mammoth ice floes the size of Munster.

Even now, the Arctic Ocean surface is being paved over by fresh ice as winter bites and the days become shorter. Yet while the summer ice extent decreases rapidly, the decline seen in winter ice cover has moved at a much slower pace, according to a report released in September by Clamer, the EU’s Climate Change and European Marine Ecosystem Research unit.

The report looks at how climate change will affect marine environments, including the Arctic region. It showed winter sea-ice extent is reducing at just 3 per cent per decade, four times slower than the summertime loss. Even so, the trend is clear and January 2011 saw the lowest winter ice extent since at least 1970.

Ice loss is also widespread across parts of northern Canada and Greenland, according to the Clamer report. The annual thaw has increased by more than 10 days per decade over the past 40 years in Hudson Bay, the East Greenland Sea, the Laptev/East Siberian seas above Russia and the Chukchi/Beaufort seas.

While Santa’s elves will be worrying about how to keep their feet dry, the researchers are more concerned about the relative thickness of the ice that remains.

In 2004 about half of the ice cover in the Arctic Ocean was seasonal or first-year ice. Just four years later about two-thirds of the cover was first-year ice, according to the Clamer report.

During the Cold War nuclear submarines used to criss-cross the Artic basin beneath the ice, recording its thickness as they went. The data showed the winter thickness averaged about 3.64m in 1980. By 2008 the average had declined to 1.75m, as measured by satellites.

The UN Climate Change Conference in Durban heard last week that 13 of the hottest years on record have occurred over the past 15 years. Unless the trend is reversed, Arctic ice could disappear altogether by 2050 during summer, according to a report from the World Meteorological Organisation.

So the foundations of the North Pole are unlikely to last much longer, something that will encourage the man in the red suit to up stakes and set up a new headquarters.

There is too little snow in Ireland to convince him to open a workshop subsidiary here, so we can’t count on this bit of foreign direct investment, despite the Government’s jobs drive. Yet Santa will have to choose wisely if he is not to experience a repeat of the changes seen in the Arctic.

Land-based glaciers and mountain ice cover are melting away and will not provide a long-term refuge for Santa’s workshop. The famous Mt Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, is losing its ice, and the cover that remains is predicted to disappear within decades. Mont Blanc in the Alps, the famous “White Mountain” that ranks as western Europe’s highest, is also losing glacier ice at a steady pace.

The ongoing Durban conference heard the latest data on glacier loss last Sunday, with results from a study of the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region, which includes Mt Everest, the tallest peak in the world.

The region accounts for some 30 per cent of the world’s glaciers and for this reason is often referred to as the “third pole”.

A new study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development released on Sunday showed the region has 54,000 glaciers covering 60,000 sq km. Yet only 10 of them have been monitored to assess whether they are gaining or losing ice.

The review of these few is not encouraging, according to the report. The average rate of loss has doubled between the periods 1980-2000 and 1996-2005.

This means Santa might have to consider a radical alternative, moving from the North to the South Pole. He and his elves will have the comfort of knowing there is about 2.7km of solid ice under foot, rather than a liquid ocean.

And unlike the Antarctic Peninsula, the South Pole and East Antarctica are currently gaining rather than losing snow and ice.

Disappearing ice will cause a sea change in Arctic living

RESEARCHERS say ice at the North Pole might disappear completely during summertime within a few decades. But what difference does it make?

It makes quite a bit of difference, according to a European study called Damocles. It details a number of profound changes with unknown consequences likely to arise if and when the ice goes.

Melting Arctic ice at sea will not have an impact on sea levels, in the same was as a melting ice cube in a drink doesn’t make the glass overflow. But when the ice goes or recedes, shipping will follow immediately. The melt will open up seasonal shipping routes and increase traffic on the Arctic Ocean.

While this will greatly reduce maritime transport times and fuel consumption, it will also increase the risk of oil spills, illegal discharges and the discarding of pollutants in the ocean’s relatively clean waters.

We may not have to wait long for this to begin: this summer saw enough ice disappear across northern Canada to create an almost ice-free northwest passage for shipping.

And where the ships go, the invasive species follow. Many sea animals hitch-hike on the hulls of ships, dropping off to colonise new territories.

The ice also provides a barrier to species migration, preventing fish and organisms from the north Atlantic moving across into the north Pacific. There will be nothing to stop this migration with the ice barrier reduced or gone during summer months, and this would cause unrecoverable changes to these habitats.

So, too, could the near immediate pursuit of natural resources in the water and under the Arctic seabed. It is the shallowest ocean in the world, and countries have scrambled to carve up oil and mineral rights on the seabed. Open waters would also attract fish-factory trawlers moving into waters that previously were unaccessible.

The commercial potential includes tourism, the Damocles study notes. The region has already opened up, but easier access would speed up the tourist rush north.

All of this activity will have an unknown impact, both on the people who already live there and the animals that evolved to live with polar ice.

Inuit populations now living in remote settlements tended to have a close relationship with their local environment, living on the diet that it made available. The balance that has existed for millennia will be lost, and new ways to live would have to be found. Species would disappear, but certainly new ones would expand into previously unaccessible terrain.

What is certain is things will not be the same once the ice goes.

To watch a Nasa visualisation of the 2011 Arctic sea ice minimum see earth/features/2011-ice-min.html