Giant conference to discuss 'dramatic' Arctic changes

Conference to address findings of the International Polar Year, which lasted from 2007 to 2009.

2,000 scientists expected at Montreal polar conference

Ice floes float in Baffin Bay above the Arctic circle from the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent on July 10, 2008. Thousands of scientists from around the world are to meet in Montreal next week to discuss complex research that has come to a simple conclusion. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

It took hundreds of scientists from dozens of countries with millions of dollars in funding, but the conclusion they've come to is simple.

Climate change is now altering the Arctic faster than the people who live there and the governments who regulate it can keep up with.

"I've been working in the Arctic for 30 years now and, personally, I'm amazed at the speed at which things are changing in the Arctic," said University of Manitoba ice specialist David Barber, who is to speak at a major conference on Arctic research next week in Montreal.

"It's extremely dramatic."

More than 2,000 scientists are expected at the week-long meeting to discuss the findings of International Polar Year, which lasted from 2007 to 2009.

The research effort involved scientists from 60 countries who had funding of more than $1.2 billion and resulted in hundreds of published papers.

Changes such as shrinking Arctic sea ice have become well-known since then, but what's less well-known is the accelerating rate at which changes are happening.

"The physical changes in the Arctic are so rapid that the regulatory environment – particularly for shipping and safety issues – just have not been able to keep up with the pace, not only of thephysical changes but the economic changes," said Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska.

In Brigham's home, aboriginal communities along the coast are being wiped out by the increasing pace of shoreline erosion.

"We're faced with moving multiple communities inland so they can thrive."

Summer ice pack under threat

Changes are everywhere.

Temperatures are increasing so quickly that Barber has changed his estimate of when the summer ice pack will disappear from 2100 to as early as next year.

Ice once attached to the land is breaking off and forming icebergs in the Beaufort Sea, where energy companies hope to start exploratory drilling.

"There are more of [those icebergs] and they are a much larger hazard than they used to be," said Barber.

Sea ice loss – together with the loss of winter snow cover – is also causing rapid declines in animals such as gulls and walruses.

Seals, which depend on a reliable snowpack to build dens to protect newly born pups, are also hurting. The population cycles of small rodents such as lemmings appear to have collapsed.

The trees and shrubs of the boreal forest are moving into the tundra, bringing with them new animals such as the red fox that are replacing the native Arctic fox.

The winter moth is defoliating trees in Arctic Scandinavia. Moose ticks are troubling previously tick-free herds in the Yukon.

Northern aboriginals, whose food security depends on their ability to get out on the land to hunt and fish, find themselves stranded when conditions change unexpectedly.

And the traditional knowledge that taught hunters how to adapt is being handed down ever more rarely.

Cutting northern aboriginals off from the land and the food it provides strikes at the very heart of Arctic communities, said Tristan Pearce of the University of Guelph.

"People are being stuck on the land or they're avoiding travel altogether," he said. "Subsistence is paramount for community health and viability."

Meanwhile, booming commodity prices and easier access have increased the demand for Arctic resources from hydrocarbons to fish.

While the governments of Arctic countries can and have been controlling activity in their coastal waters, the central Arctic Ocean – once a forbidding no-man's-land of year-round ice – has become a global and largely unregulated commons.

"The whole of the Arctic is becoming rapidly more integrated with the global economy," said Brigham.

Southerners can no longer afford to look at the Arctic as a remote wasteland with no influence on warmer climes, Barber suggested.

"The message has to get out that the Arctic is an early bellwether of what we can expect in the future. We should be doing more as a species to get this situation of greenhouse gas emissions under control."