Why the Arctic is so important?

Publicado en: The Eagle's Gaze por Eloi. Texto original

A few weeks ago, Greenpeace started a campaign to report the intentions of Shell in the Arctic Sea. We have seen them in several public actions, the last one with critical consequences for the activists involved (By the way, you can sign here to ask their release).

What they claim is the environmental catastrophe that an oil spill could cause in a such sensible place as the Arctic, specially for the biodiversity that live there. But I would dare say, that this problem is nothing in comparison to loss the ice permanently. Will have consequences to the climate, the permanent loss of the ice? How many species need the ice to live? Someone once suggested that we could move Polar Bears to Antarctica. I'm sure Penguins would be happy to have new neighbours.

The facts
Every year, the ice coverage is smaller. And smaller. Last year (2012) was the lowest point, and this is not getting better (ok, it seems this year is much better, but I wouldn't be too optimistic).
Some firms are rubbing their hands with this data, because they will can do a couple of things that until now they couldn't because of the ice: 1) Oil drilling (Shell has already started), and 2) Open a shortcut between Asia and Europe for big ships.

The consequences

New Internationalist Magazine
Less reflection

The first consequence of ice melting will be the direct increase of the temperature. The colour white of the ice helps to reflect an important part of the sunlight, which means very few is absorbed, and then, very few warm the surface. This effect is called albedo. If instead of ice, there is water, a larger part of the solar radiation will be absorbed (albedo will decrease), leading to an increase of the global temperature. This effect leads to a vicious circle: the less albedo, the more heat is absorbed, temperature arise and more ice is melted (much less albedo).

Sea Ice melted will not increase the global sea level, but it will the ice based on land. If the totality of Greenland's and Antarctic's ice would melt, the sea level would arise up to several meters. Fortunately, this will not happen along the next decades.

Permafrost melting

And, if this is not enough, another consequence of the arise of temperature on boreal zones is the melting of the frozen soil. Permafrost is a permanent frozen soil located at high latitudes, which contents large amounts of CO2 and CH4 (methane). The melting of the permafrost would release those greenhouse gases, increasing the global warming. Here again it is formed a vicious circle: the more temperature, the more greenhouse gases which increase the temperature, and then, release much more amount of greenhouse gases.

Global ocean currents

What about the global ocean currents? Currently, polar regions play an important role on the dynamics of the global water currents. Let's take a look at the Thermohaline Circulation. The movement of these global currents are based on two variables (as the name itself suggests): temperature and salinity. The more salinity, the more density. The colder, the more density.

When the Gulf Stream (surface and warm current) arrives at the Arctic it gets cold and mixes up with very saline water (when the ice is formed, most of the salt remains in the water). At that point, the very dense water formed gets deeper and starts a long trip around the world.

It the ice is completely melted, the water is less cold and less saline. What would happen then if deep water cannot be formed?


The other face of the coin is the wildlife, and I am not talking only about Polar Bears. The whole ecosystem will change at the same pace as the ice melting.

Arctic Food Chain - The Carbon Brief
The food chain starts with tiny little organisms, called phytoplankton. They experience a bloom in Spring, when ice starts to be tinier and sunlight reach them. Krill eats phytoplankton. Fish eats Krill. Seals eat Fish. And Polar Bears eat Seals.

Phytoplankton bloom occurs only once a year. If the there is less ice, or the ice is tinier, this bloom could happen before, and Krill could appear when this bloom is going down. Krill will have less food than needed and consequently, the whole chain would be destabilised.

One further consideration has to be done. Some species needs ice surface to rest (Walrus), to move and travel (Arctic Fox) or to hunt (Polar Bears). All effects together do not draw a good panorama for them. Extinction of species does not seem to be a problem in a very short-term, but population decrease and hybridization of some species have already started to happen.

What you can do

The aim of this post was to give a general picture of the whole situation up there, but I couldn't finish without mention at least one thing you could do (I probably will write posts about alternatives).

If you are reading this text, I assume that you are using electricity somehow (If not, tell me please, I'm interested). So, what kind of electricity does your company provide you? Mine offers me 100% renewable energy, so I don't pay a coin to firms that promote non-renewable energy. I'm talking about Som Energia (translation: We are energy), a non-profit cooperative concerned about the environment, where you can participate actively. I'm sure there are similar initiatives in your country, therefore you only have to change your contract to an environmental friendly one ;-)

Do you have more suggestions? 

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