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CLIMATE CHANGE: Arctic Is the Canary in the Coalmine

Stephen Leahy

QUEBEC CITY, Canada, Dec 12 2008 (IPS) - Nearly 1,000 scientists and representatives of indigenous peoples from 16 countries have braved a major winter storm to share their findings and concerns about the rapidly warming Arctic region at the International Arctic Change conference in Quebec City.

The Arctic is “ground zero” for climate change, with temperatures rising far faster than anywhere else on the planet. Some predict an ice-free summer Arctic in less than five to 10 years – the first time the Arctic Ocean will be exposed to the sun in many hundreds of thousands of years.

The speed of change has scientists scrambling to understand the impacts on indigenous people, wildlife and ecology.

“The Arctic will be full of future surprises,” said David Carlson, an oceanographer and director of the International Polar Year programme office.

“Protected by its cover of sea ice, the Arctic Ocean is the last unblemished ocean on the planet,” Carlson told IPS.

The loss of the ice, the thermal blanket that keeps the Arctic region cold, will have huge impacts on the weather in the northern hemisphere. The difference in temperatures between the polar regions and the tropical regions is what drives the planet’s weather. A warmer Arctic means storm tracks and precipitation patterns will shift all across the middle of North America, Europe and Asia, he said.

“The extraordinary attendance from all over the circumpolar world illustrates the urgency of coordinating action to face the impacts of warming and modernisation in the Arctic, said Louis Fortier, scientific director of ArcticNet, a Canadian research network and host of the International Arctic Change conference.

Interest in the Arctic has never been higher. Governments are concerned about sovereignty issues – such as who owns the Arctic seafloor. Corporations are interested in extracting oil, gas and minerals and the possibility of a new cost-saving sea route over the top of the world. Indigenous peoples are struggling as the landscape melts from under their buildings and their traditional “country foods” decline.

“The ecosystem changes are forcing us to move to a western diet that we are genetically unsuited to,” said Duane Smith, president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (Canada), an indigenous organisation.

Inuit have lived primarily off “country food”, like seal meat, caribou and birds, but many of those populations have declined. That has forced them to switch to an imported processed food diet resulting in an epidemic of diabetes and other dietary problems. The changing climate is also melting the permafrost and altering the courses of rivers, threatening the housing of some communities.

Much of the housing in the Canadian Arctic is in very poor shape because of the enormous expense of shipping building materials thousands of kilometres. There are few job prospects so there is no money for repairs or building newer homes. That has led to over-crowding and tuberculosis outbreaks, Smith told IPS.

“We need studies to learn about the impacts of changing environment on our people,” he said.

Inuit already have health problems, including the world’s highest rates of lung cancers, and social issues including chronic unemployment, and high rates of suicide and alcoholism as they try to adapt to a modern world. Climate change has the potential to destroy them as a distinct northern people.

“The Canadian government needs to step up with funding to help us adapt,” Smith said.

Canada is re-discovering its Arctic dimension, a region that comprises 40 percent of the country, said Martin Fortier, a biologist at the Université Laval, executive director of ArcticNet and Louis’s brother. There are new investments in Arctic research and a commitment to build a permanent polar science research centre.

However, much of the new government interest is driven by the Arctic’s economic potential in terms of energy and mineral resources and the potential of a new shipping route through the Arctic Ocean when the summer is ice has melted.

“There is very high interest in the public, especially about the environmental changes and impacts on the Inuit,” Fortier told IPS.

Both Smith and Fortier were delighted that more than 500 young scientists are attending the four-day conference and that many will devote their careers to the changing Arctic. They bring a more holistic approach to science, incorporating local knowledge and working with local communities, said Smith.

Fortier hopes the Canadian government will bring a similar level of enthusiasm to funding Arctic research but realises most will be directed towards economic development of the north. “We will need a lot of information to ensure that any new development in the north is done properly,” he said.

Smith sees some benefits in such development for the Inuit but wants it to be done at the highest possible standards to protect the environment. He also wants development to proceed slowly so that it will bring long-term, multi-generational benefits. The region has already seen the downsides of gold-rush type mineral extraction that provides well-paying jobs for five or 10 years and then vanishes.

However, recent multi-billion-dollar oil and gas leases granted by Canada to drill in the Arctic’s Beaufort Sea carry a condition that requires energy companies to do test drilling within five years, said Martin Fortier.

“You can be sure industry will be building fleets of icebreakers,” he said.

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