Global warming is an issue we have all been made very aware of. However, although it appears to be a very straightforward process, numerous studies conducted on the problem have yielded varied results and conflicting evidence. This means there is little certainty over what is actually happening, the reasons for it, and the implications. On a very basic level, the problem is changes in the climate, which appear to be causing ice in the Polar Regions to melt. This in turn is causing many changes including a rise in sea levels, and damage to arctic environments, which is also greatly affecting wildlife.
This issue of climate change is divided. We know that temperatures are rising – around the Arctic Peninsula they have risen 2.5 degrees in 50 years. This may not seem a lot but it actually makes a huge difference. But there is still debate as to what is causing this rise in temperatures, with some scientists arguing that the temperatures may be rising due to certain natural processes, as Antarctica has melted before – 3 million years ago.
Nevertheless, there is a general consensus that human influences are contributing significantly. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in their 1995 scientific assessment: ‘the balance of evidence suggests a discernable human influence on global climate’. This human influence is mainly in the form of detrimental greenhouse gases and the destruction of forests, which absorb damaging carbon dioxide. Many scientists explain that the warming may create a domino effect called ‘positive feedback’ causing even more, intensified warming. This is because the bright surface of the ice acts as a reflector for the sun, keeping the planet cool. This reflective quality is called ‘albedo’. The more ice that melts, the less there will be to reflect the sun, and so the warmer it will become, thus causing temperatures to rise higher and faster, in an ever decreasing circle.
Meanwhile, other scientists believe that the warming could eventually lead to a reduced sea level, because the increased temperature would mean more evaporation, and more snowfall. If the snowfall increases more than the melting, the sea levels would lower, and the Polar Regions would increase. However, at the moment, the concern seems to be firmly placed on he opposite. In January 1995, the 4,200 sq km ice shelf Larsen A collapsed. Three years later, in April 1998, 200sq km of Larsen B collapsed. Then, finally, in March of this year, Larsen B collapsed completely.
The polar ice caps
The problem affects the ice structures in the polar regions on many levels. The main problem seems to be that the ‘grounding line’ between grounded and floating ice is receding. It’s quite simple really: ice does not have to melt in order to contribute to the water levels. What is does have to do, is become separated from the grounded areas of ice. Once it detaches and floats free, most of the contribution to the sea level has been made – just like putting ice in a glass of coke. So the rise in temperature is causing the line of grounded ice to recede – so more ice is breaking off and floating free. Of course a lot of it is melting as well, but it is the disintegration of the main body which is most significant, as after this, the form of the ice makes little difference.
The implications of this change are large scale and global; rises in the sea level, climates and an increase in extreme weather; more cyclonic storms, changed wind patterns affecting temperature, hotter summers, colder winters, flooding and droughts. We have all been told about the dangers of large coastal cities such as New York and Miami disappearing underwater – well this would also include the islands of the Pacific, Caribbean and Indian Oceans and a lot of Scandinavia. The melting ice caps would also mean changes to water current patterns and temperatures – the Ocean Conveyor which brings warmer and cooler water to different countries, such as the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift. And the wildlife of the Polar Regions is in fact already greatly affected by the changes.
The affect on wildlife
In fact the melting of the Polar Regions is at the moment most critical for the wildlife that inhabit them. These regions are home to a surprising range of perfectly evolved animals including polar bears, seals, walruses, penguins, caribou, and a great array of arctic sea life. These creatures rely on the ice cover and seasonal changes in environment to survive.
The polar bear, for example, is most active during winter and spring, as this is when ithe ice cover is at its peak. But with warmer weather, the colder season is receding – the ‘spring break-up’ for example, now come 3 weeks earlier than it used to. This is a significant reduction in the time that the bears have to stock up on – they often go many months without feeding, a pregnant mother, for example, can fast for up to 8 months. But the longer the warmer season lasts, the longer the bears have to last without food. The effects are evident through the bears’ loss of weight and reduced numbers of cubs.
Even more striking is the plight of the Peary caribou – a type of antelope, which, until recently, thrived in these extreme environments. But their Western Arctic Island population of 24,320 in 1961 fell to a meagre 1,100 by 1997. In one particular place, only 43 caribou remained of an original 2,400. The caribou starved to death during the warm winters that made it near impossible for them to feed. Instead of soft snow covering the ground, which they could dig beneath to find
These are just two of the animals affected by the changes and only a small view of what their species are experiencing. Penguins, walruses and seals are among a host of other wildlife affected similarly.
The damage that has been and will continue to be done to both their and our own ways of life is not only very significant but holds very serious consequences for us if we do not rectify the situation somehow. There is no debate over the benefits of global warming, as no one stands to benefit from a world affected by it. But if people, corporations and governments fail to recognise and act on the problem, it is inevitable that their choices will one day catch up with them in a very unpleasant and unfortunate way.