Penguins & melting ice: Arctic, Antarctic actors & barometers of globes future

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The North and South Poles are at the center of the earth. The earth’s survival, that is.

The two polar regions, the Arctic and Antarctic, are “actors and barometers” of rapid climate and environmental changes that the world is experiencing. That was the message last week of a joint meeting of the Arctic Council, involving eight countries as well as organizations of indigenous peoples, and the 47 Antarctic Treaty nations.

The poles are “vital to the functioning of the earth’s terrestrial, biological, climate, ocean and atmospheric systems,” the declaration said.

Ice collapse

Just days before the conference opened April 6, an ice bridge holding a massive Antarctic ice shelf in place collapsed, opening the possibility that the ice shelf itself — the size of Connecticut — might move out to sea.

That in turn could let Antarctic glaciers slide into the ocean, raising sea levels around the world.

Global warming, and in particular warming oceans, is blamed for the melting polar ice.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in opening the joint meeting, declared, “With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis.”

“Big changes at both ends of the Earth are clearly getting the world’s attention,” New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin wrote. “Normally, such events attract fairly low-level representatives.”

Revkin continued, “Seasoned experts on Antarctic ice say there is plenty of reason for concern, given that warming waters could continue freeing up the ice sheets for centuries to come, leading to relentlessly rising seas.” However scientists don’t know for sure yet how fast and far seas could rise, he noted.

Oil in the Arctic

In the Arctic, melting ice is also opening up navigable sea lanes to commercial, or potentially military, traffic.

The Arctic has huge unexplored reserves of some 90 billion barrels of oil and an even greater amount of natural gas, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey.

These resources constitute 13 percent of the world's untapped reserves of oil and 30 percent of reserves of natural gas.

Secretary of State Clinton said the melting in the Arctic 'raises the possibility of new energy exploration, which will, of course, have additional impacts on our environment.'

Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store told the conference that countries bordering the Arctic need to cooperate and avoid conflict. These include Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark, as well as the United States.

Clinton said the U.S. would work with other countries surrounding the region 'to strengthen peace and security and support economic development and protect the environment.'

The April 6 meeting was followed by an 11-day conference of 400 diplomats, scientists and administrators from the countries participating in the historic 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty. That treaty, amazingly, was signed in 1959, as the Cold War raged. It guaranteed the Antarctic would be preserved as a non-military zone for peaceful international cooperation and scientific research.

Toxic tourism

In a declaration honoring the 50th anniversary of the treaty, the participants called for ensuring that “human activity in Antarctica, including tourism, is conducted in a manner that … promotes the continued protection of the Antarctic environment and minimizes cumulative impacts.'

Clinton said the U.S. is concerned about the environmental impact of Antarctic tourism, which has been growing in recent years. Cruise ships in the area have been involved in a number of accidents.

“The United States is concerned about the safety of the tourists and the suitability of the ships that make the journey south,” Clinton said. “We have submitted a resolution that would place limits on landings from ships carrying large numbers of tourists. We have also proposed new requirements for lifeboats on tourist ships to make sure they can keep passengers alive until rescue comes. And we urge greater international cooperation to prevent discharges from these ships that will further degrade the environment around the Antarctica.”

President Obama has asked the Senate to speedily ratify an amendment to environmental protection rules for the Antarctic. The amendment, Annex VI, adopted in 2005, sets liability rules for the failure of operators in the Antarctic to respond to environmental emergencies.

In an April 2 message to the Senate, Obama wrote that the amendment will “advance the U.S. goals of protecting the environment of Antarctica, establishing incentives for Antarctic operators to act responsibly, and providing for the reimbursement of costs incurred by the United States Government when it responds to environmental emergencies caused by others.”

Clinton also told the conference the Obama administration is committed to having Congress ratify the Law of the Sea Convention, a United Nations text on maritime rights drafted in 1982.

The United States signed the convention's text in 1994, but until now, right-wing opposition in Congress has blocked ratification.

The Baltimore meeting is exploring issues ranging from managing big science projects in the South Pole region to assessing the impact of increasing commercial fishing in Antarctic waters for krill, the small crustaceans that are a core ingredient in the food web there.

Penguins marching to doom?

In an interview with public radio’s “Living on Earth,” scientist Chuck Kennicutt, a delegate to the polar conference, said many polar organisms, including krill, “are tied very closely to the presence or absence of ice.” Krill are a “keystone species,” critical to the overall food web, he said. “Penguins feed extensively on krill, the whales feed on krill – so you have a ripple effect.”

Kennicutt is president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University.

He said loss of ice and food affects the cute Emperor Penguins featured in “March of the Penguins.”

Kennicutt noted a recent study showing that “the current warming was having rather dramatic effects on their habitat.”

Many animals that live in the severe climates of the polar regions are particularly vulnerable to changes because they are already “right on the margin of being able to survive,” he said. “In other words, if you had to swim 20 miles further than you did before, you might not make it back to where the rookeries are. And … returning to the rookeries, that's how the infant penguins are fed. And so you have this cascade of effects that ultimately can make major changes in the ecosystems.”

suewebb @ pww.org