TIME Magazine's 'Heroes of the Environment - 2009’: The Catlin Arctic Survey

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Pen Hadow of the Catlin Arctic Survey expedition to measure the thickness of arctic sea ice makes a note of snow and ice thicknesses
© Martin Hartley / WWF-Canon

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The Story:

From late February until mid-May, a team of 3 people from Britain journeyed by foot across the disintegrating Arctic Ice Pack. Starting in Resolute in Canada’s high Arctic Islands, the team headed for the North Pole. The team was driven by a mission: to measure the thickness of the sea ice, and help scientists predict the future for this vast, beautiful, and threatened part of the Earth.

On an environmental mission that would test the absolute limits of their strength and endurance, they would go on to be chosen as ‘Heroes of the Environment - 2009’ by TIME Magazine.

WWF supported this expedition because we are concerned about the future of the Arctic sea ice. The ice is on a downward trend, and is predicted to disappear in the summer within a generation. This will likely have severe consequence for the Arctic animals and people that have relied on that sea ice for generations. The disappearance of the ice is also having a global effect.

It is a stark reality that Arctic sea ice could disappear in the summer sometime between 2013 and 2040. Regardless of exactly when the summer ice will disappear, the downward trend is clear, and this trend of shrinking ice cover will change almost everything in the Arctic, and will also be felt globally.

Arctic effects

Some Arctic species, such as narwhal, hooded and ringed seals, walrus and polar bears are very dependent on particular ice conditions. They evolved over thousands of years to fit very specific arctic ice conditions. Now, in a matter of decades those conditions are changing radically. The loss of arctic ice jeopardizes the survival of these ice-dependent species.

Ice loss effects will cascade through the entire arctic food chain. Ice margins are among the most productive zones on Earth, and are central to the food chain, including fish, birds, and mammals.  

The effects of ice loss are already being felt internationally, especially through changes to the feeding grounds of migratory birds and fish stocks.

Ice provides an important travel route for arctic land based species such as caribou and muskox, allowing them to travel between islands and mainland areas.

The loss of sea ice opens up larger parts of the Arctic Ocean to activities such as shipping and exploitation of non-renewable resource such as oil and gas. These activities are likely to add further stresses to arctic ecosystems already stressed by climate change.

The absence of sea ice along arctic shorelines increases erosion of those shorelines, washing away infrastructure and even threatening entire coastal communities.

The loss and changes in distribution of species are likely to have a profound effect on Arctic peoples who rely on those resources.

Global effects

The effects of shrinking ice will be felt over the world. The first of these is called the ‘albedo effect’. Albedo is a term for the reflectivity of a surface. In recent history, the Arctic has been very reflective, thanks to all the shiny white snow and ice cover. The reflective surface absorbs less heat than bare land or water.

In the past few decades and especially in the last few years, the trend has been for less snow and ice cover in the Arctic. Studies have found that the Arctic is losing four percent of its snow cover a decade, while the ice is going even faster, at a rate of more than eleven percent a decade.

Last year’s summer ice cover was one third less than the average from 1979 (when satellite monitoring began) to 2000. The snow and ice are going due to higher air temperatures, caused by climate change. This leads to still higher temperatures that in turn melt more ice and snow, and so the cycle continues.

As this warming cycle continues in the Arctic, it in turn influences global weather patterns, by changing wind and water currents. The global weather is driven by the differences in air temperature between tropical regions and the poles. As these differences are changed by a warming Arctic, global weather patterns are destabilized, creating new more unpredictable and more extreme weather events at lower latitudes.

Another global effect of Arctic warming is sea level rise. The warmer Arctic Ocean waters in combination with the rising air temperatures are already increasing the melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The estimations of the contribution of this melting ice sheet to global sea level rise have been increasing recently with the realization that the Arctic as a whole is warming faster than previously expected. The latest predictions are that global sea level may well rise as much as 80cm by 2100, partly as a consequence of melting in Greenland.

WWF’s solutions

WWF has two responses to ice loss; the first is to persuade individuals and governments to accept the urgent need for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. However, even this action may not be sufficient to save the majority of the arctic sea ice, and the animals that depend on it. This means we must also work out how to avoid adding further stress to arctic systems by increased shipping and industrial activities in the Arctic. We must leave enough space around critical habitat areas for the animals that live there to survive the challenge of changing conditions. WWF, as the only environmental NGO with offices around the Arctic, is undertaking this critical work of identifying how best to help arctic animals and ecosystems to survive the receding ice, and promoting these solutions to arctic governments and peoples.

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