| Posted: 2/23/2007; 9:16:38 PM
(Michael Hickling/Yorkshire Post,
20 January 2007) -- Why go to the furthest
corners of the planet to investigate our future weather? Because the
polar regions are those most sensitive to climate change. Everyone is
affected and it's already later than we think.
down the pit used to keep a canary in a cage. If it took sick that was
the signal the atmosphere was foul and fast action was needed.
north and south poles are like warning canaries for the climate of
planet Earth. If things go awry in these frozen wastes, it's the sign
of big trouble for the rest of us. Concern about the state of the
canaries has been growing for some time. There's now alarm that they
have dropped off the perch.
The cause of it is us. One of the most
spectacular polar events in recent times was the unexplained collapse
of the Larson B ice shelf in 2002. It has just been demonstrated by
researchers that human-induced climate change strengthened warming
westerly winds over the Antarctic peninsula. It melted the ice which
drained into crevasses on the Larson ice shelf, causing its break-up.
Scientists are not usually given to creating apocalyptic scenarios for
the near future. Yet Sir David King, the UK's chief scientific adviser,
warns that in the light of what is happening to the polar ice, global
temperatures stand to rise by three degrees, followed by drought and
famine. Cereal crop production will fall like a stone, 400 million
more people will go hungry and three billion will be at extra risk of
flooding and without access to fresh water. So
the heat is on and as if to underline that fact, British weather
forecasters predict this year will be the warmest on record for us.
Jane Francis of Leeds University, who holds the Polar Medal for her
contribution to British polar research, has been going to the ends of
the Earth for 20 years. Her business is finding evidence hidden in
rocks, especially wood and leaf fossils from the time when large parts
of the poles were covered in forests. Interpreting the information
reveals the picture of climate patterns over the course of millions of
So it's extraordinary that as a geologist used to dealing
with change that happens at glacial speed, she has seen with her own
eyes a turnabout in Antarctic conditions in a couple of decades. Her
last two-month expedition down there was this time last year. "In
January and February it usually hovers around freezing," she says.
"Last year in the mornings, it was plus 19 degrees centigrade. The
difference in temperature between the sea and the land caused
phenomenal winds and dust storms. It was like working in the Sahara. We
had to wear face masks and goggles. Mind you, we left in February in a
Prof Francis heads the Leeds Centre for Polar Research which is playing a part in the 2007 International Polar Year (IPY). This is the biggest international collaborative Polar project ever undertaken, with some 50,000 people involved from over 60 countries. It is to be officially launched at the Royal Society in London in a month's time.
"It's big, big science, pushing the
frontiers of what we can do," says Prof Francis. "At the moment we
don't understand how the climate system works as a process and a
mechanism. The polar regions are the most sensitive areas to climate
change but it's difficult to work there and it's quite expensive.
few years ago I thought that what was happening was not startling. But
the increase in carbon dioxide and temperature is really quite dramatic
now. It's beyond what we should be comfortable with. It's too big for
us to stop. The crisis is that it's happening so fast.
from the past that the Earth can take care of itself. This time there
isn't time for the Earth's systems to settle and balance. Everything is
moving too quickly."
The Earth has existed in two distinct climatic
states. "Icehouse" is when ice covers the polar regions. The
"Greenhouse" state has been when no ice has been present anywhere.
Between these opposites are intermediates states. "You have to go back
40m years to the last Greenhouse," says Prof Francis.
inter-glacial period there's a cooling and warming in the Icehouse, as
the temperature gets warmer the ice caps shrink. But there's a tipping
point when through the internal dynamics, the Earth passes a threshold
and teeters into the next state. Imagine a rising graph line like a
hockey stick with a big kick at the end."
The Leeds Centre for Polar
Research exists as a co-ordinating centre to give a name and a focus to
numerous projects. The main player in the IPY is the British Antarctic Survey. The Arctic has no comparable co-ordinating
organisation although it is change at the North Pole--whose system is
very fragile--to which we are more exposed.
This change is going to
be huge and will happen quite soon. The Arctic Ocean's ice--it froze
two million years ago--is thin and is set to vanish completely (unlike
the immensely thick ice sheet that covers more than 97 per cent of
Antarctica and dates back 40 million years). Some say the Arctic icecap
will be gone in 30 years time, the consensus is within 100 years. The
impact of this on entire populations--from seals to people--will be
Once the ice disappears, changes in the way the Arctic Ocean behaves will affect the Atlantic currents, especially those in the seas around Greenland and Norway. One of the projects of IPY will be to send one of the world's most powerful ice-breakers to plough its way through the Arctic for the first time to collect data.
a researcher like Prof Francis, the Arctic is the much handier pole to
reach. She has been four times and is off to Svalbard this summer. "You
fly to Oslo and Tromso, then take a tent and hire a boat. I've only
ever seen a polar bear from a plane. They tend to stick to the coast
and if they are on the land in the summer they are very hungry. I did
once find the tracks of one that had followed me. I also watched a pack
of arctic wolves – huge white beasts – hunting around a herd of musk
Her next Antarctic expedition will be her 13th polar trip.
Going south is a far bigger undertaking. "You fly to the Falklands,
then from Port Stanley it's three days of sea-sickness hell to the tip
of the Antarctic peninsula.
"Researching fossil plants and climate
was a relatively novel topic when I started. These were the ancestors
of the forests you can still see in places like Tasmania and Patagonia
"You have to be pretty sensible working down there. You need
stamina, you can't be a wimp, there's no nine-to-five. You work as long
as you can – until you fall asleep – because there's 24-hour sunlight
and you never know what tomorrow's weather will bring. I've sat in the
tent for 10 days, so you need incredible patience as well. When there's
a blizzard you can't go outside, not even for a pee.
"I like the
silence. It's almost like a monastic retreat, you are so shut-off.
There are only three things in life to worry you – your work, the
weather and what are you going to have for dinner. Food is a top
"There's usually about four to six people in the camp and everyone has a box of rations delivered by helicopter.
box is the same, apart from the flavour of the jam – porridge, navy
biscuits, loads of chocolate, which is vitally important. You need
5,000 calories a day , so you eat anything. If you go with the
Americans, you can raid their freezer at McMurdo and eat high-quality
fillet steak all the time.
"Unlike the Arctic with the polar bears,
wolves, hares, foxes and reindeer, there's not much to see apart from
penguins. You suffer some sensory loss because you are deprived of
colour – you just see a lot of white, blue sky, brown rocks and the
orange of the tent. You're deprived of smell as well. It's too cold for
that. So you find you crave things – tastes. One effect is people
throwing ever more curry powder into their food.
"The Antarctic is
beautiful at times. Tranquillity has a new depth and meaning. I've sat
with people for 12 hours just looking at a calm scene, mesmerised by
the views and the changing light. It can be very cold and you can still
get hypothermic in the summer. It's the wind that does it. On the
Beardmore glacier which was on Captain Scott's route, it's minus 26
degrees, even in the summer."
There's firm evidence to show that the
Arctic is being hit hard by pollution by contaminents that originate in
agricultural pesticides in Europe and from heavy metals. In Antarctica,
is there now a degree of people pollution – in the shape of tourists?
"The holiday trade has increased. I lectured on a tourist ship to see
what it was like and I found that most people who go on that sort of
holiday come back as ambassadors for science and Antarctica."
isn't climate change out of our hands in this country? Whatever
conscientious green measures we take as individuals in the way we live
our lives, they will be dwarfed by what the governments of China, India
and America do or don't do.
"Everyone has to do their bit," says
Prof Francis. So what about all the air miles she logs going on her
expeditions? "I live in a tent, with no heating or lighting. I do heat
the water with a Primus stove, but I don't wash my clothes and I don't
have baths or showers. I earn my Brownie points."
Part of the plan
for International Polar Year is huge outreach to get the media, the
public and schools to sit up and take part in inter-active projects
like blogs. They hope IPY will have a similar impact to the moon
landings. That might be tricky.
In the days when the polar regions
represented the last frontiers on earth, publicity was easier to
generate because of the compelling man-against-the-elements nature of
this risky scientific inquiry. The heroic stories of Scott and
Shackleton fired imaginations everywhere and still do. Perhaps today
they need a bit of lateral thinking here – maybe an I'm a Celebrity Get
Me Out of Here programme from a collection of snowy tents rather than
the usual rainforest?
The first collaborative scientific event to
study the polar regions was in 1882. The last, called International
Geophysical Year (IGY), did not disappoint. The newspapers were full of
the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition which turned into the race
of the year. Sir Vivian Fuchs sought to lift the prize for Britain as
the first man to make the overland crossing of Antarctica, 2,000 miles
in 100 days. Against him, in the black vest of New Zealand, was Sir
Edmund Hilary. Fuchs referred to Hilary and his team as "bloody
colonials". They won.
The most astonishing event to mark the IGY was
the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik, the first orbiting satellite. In
the public mind, this had less to do with science or the poles than
with security and the militarisation of space. Sputnik's success was
symbolic, suggesting the Soviets could produce superior technology to
the West's. It marked the start of a quite different race, the one into
space and to be the first to land a man on the moon.
Away from the
headlines, International Geophysical Year did generate serious
research, setting up the monitoring system which was eventually to
reveal the hole in the earth's ozone layer and establishing for the
first time that Antarctica was a continent and not an archipelago of
islands. Maybe most important of all, it paved the way for the
Antarctic Treaty, designating Antarctica a zone for peace and science.
year's IPY, sponsored by the International Council of Science and the
World Meteorological Organization, will have newer technology and
techniques, researching such diverse things as ice cores, mapping and
modelling of permafrost thawing, tracking reindeer herds, investigating
oil and gas development and the impact of changing conditions on native
Dr David Carlson, IPY's programme director, says: "If
you want to understand the global carbon cycle, the global water cycle,
the global weather cycle, or global economics, it requires an
understanding of polar regions."