Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ice in the Arctic

Finally, scientists look for actual data from the Arctic:

[Comments from Jane Eert, science coordinator of the Three Oceans Project, a federal study of Canada's Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.]

For years, scientists trying to figure out what is happening to Arctic ice have relied on measurements recorded by pings from U.S. navy nuclear submarines cruising stealthily under the ice cap from Alaska to the North Pole, during the Cold War, says Eert, 49.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, and relations between Washington and Moscow warmed, the U.S. military was less worried about potential enemies knowing where its subs had been and declassified the ice data. It seemed to show the ice was thinning dramatically.

"Nobody really quite noticed the submarines were running across the outside edges of the Canadian archipelago," the islands scattered across Canada's Far North, "where for all we know, the ice was getting thicker," Eert says.

"The ice doesn't stay constantly thick over the whole area. It moves around. So if you take measurements only in one spot, and make global conclusions from that, you might be going wrong."

A physical oceanographer, Eert leads the scientific team aboard The Louis. It's her 10th voyage on the ship since 1999. Between 10 and 15 per cent of the Arctic Ocean is what Eert calls a data hole. It will take years' more research to fill it in with solid information, she adds.

After years of reports that vast areas of Arctic ice are melting as the seawater below, and air above, warm up, scientists have discovered that dramatic changes in the past three years are the result of shifting winds, perhaps caused by climate change.

Enormous amounts of ice have "been exported from the Arctic," driven by winds that are shifting as the climate changes, which pushed the ice into ocean currents that delivered it to the North Atlantic, Eert says.

"The multi-year ice in the polar pack didn't melt in the Arctic Ocean,'' she says. "It moved out and what's left in the Arctic is thinner than it was."

That doesn't mean some Arctic ice isn't disappearing altogether, just that the process is not as simple as some reports suggest, Eert says.

Old ice that has shifted south from Greenland may have a counter-effect on the climate, which is just one of the many pieces of a very complex jigsaw puzzle that scientists are trying to piece together as they attempt to predict the effects of global warming.

"The guys who are running the long-term climate models have a tough problem," Eert says. "They're looking at really long time scales, and as result they can't look at a lot of details for each year.

"In order to get the results before you die, you have to fudge some things. And what they fudge is the small-scale stuff. But it turns out that probably the small-scale stuff is important and fudging it gives you wrong answers."

This all comes well into an article that starts out focussing on plankton. The fourth paragraph says "if global warming makes things go bad for these organisms, the pain will run all the way up the food chain to humans." Inevitably, these tiny creatures are referred to as "canaries in a mine."

Paragraphs 20 and 21:

So far, scientists haven't seen any plankton species go extinct, Nelson said from Barrow, Alaska, after a separate, two-week research voyage. But they are closely watching Pacific Ocean plankton found in the Arctic to see if they begin reproducing as sea temperatures rise.

"If a Pacific species was established in the Arctic, this would really be news," he says. "But we have not detected this yet. What could happen in this scenario is that, if the invader out-competes the native species, this could lead to fundamental changes in ecosystem function."

So the doom and gloom get top billing. Then Eert comes along: "Vast areas of the Arctic are still scientific black holes, where researchers have yet to gather hard data." The paragraphs I have quoted say that scientists are studying "the effects of global warming," but on a close reading of all these paragraphs, it is clear that real scientists are trying to figure out whether the Arctic provides any actual evidence of global warming whatsoever. Any at all. Eert makes it pretty clear she hasn't seen any yet, and the plankton people haven't seen any problem with the plankton.

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