New Cryosphere Fears Appear

April 29, 2009

Yep, it’s what you’ve all been waiting for. The results are in from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), and the news is… not good. As the Guardian’s John Vidal reports (from Tromso?) AMAP, “which says new factors such as “black carbon” – soot – ozone and methane may now be contributing to global and arctic warming as much as carbon dioxide.”

According to AMAP, “plants and trees are growing more vigorously, snow cover is decreasing 1-2% a year and glaciers are shrinking” which marks an acceleration of previously observed changes in the Arctic region.

The tree line in Russia moves northwards by about 10 metres every year. Alaska has been warming constantly since the 70s. Summer sea ice is both less extensive and far thinner than it used to be. On Greenland, the area experiencing summer melting was 60 percent greater in 2007 than in 1998, while it also melted for longer at all altitudes. The seas around the Arctic are warming fast while black carbon from burning matter thousands of miles away “is warming the Arctic by creating a haze which absorbs sunlight, and it is also deposited on snow, darkening the surface and causing more sunlight to be absorbed.”

As the Foreign Minister of Norway put it, rather poetically, “There is indeed a risk that we will be among the last to live in a time of bountiful ice and snow; but such a future is not inevitable. I sincerely believe that today will mark one important step towards a different future, one where longing for the first winter’s snow remains a basic part of the human experience.”

Or, as Dorthe Jensen of the Niels Bohr Institute commented, “In the last five years we have seen many ice streams double in speed. Their floating snouts have moved back 30km. We never imagined the ice discharge would change so much.”

These are critical symptoms of planetary emergency. Permafrost is a particularly important carbon reservoir, a point made by Al Gore, who attended the launch of the report. That carbon, stored in the form of methane “has the potential to double the global warming potential in the atmosphere” according to the failed Democrat candidate for president.

Gore was particularly taken aback by findings which are stressing the previously neglected impact of black soot upon the cryosphere (the icy regions of the earth’s surface, which also include mountain glaciers). His solution – a blunt one – was to call upon people to burn less wood. But there is burning wood and there is burning wood, and it’s important to distinguish here.

Burning wood, or diesel generates soot. Forest fires are particularly important, but burning fuel wood is also a factor. Yet burning coal is worse, and other fossil fuels nearly as bad. Burning wood efficiently, using tools that can capture much of the carbon produced is possible, and not very expensive.

As Swedish engineer Folke Gunther explains at his website, a simple two-barrel retort can be made out of two buckets and a stock of firewood. This can trap much of the soot as charcoal, which can then be returned to the soil, having a fertilising effect. Amazonian peoples knew of this process, resulting in an enormous area of the current forest that stands upon a layer of charcoal produced by human activity. Such systems are thought to have been enormously productive, and there is an active “biochar” community seeking to propagate them as a solution to climate change.

So there are alternatives to dirty burning. Admittedly the Amazon peoples probably produced a great deal of soot, but there is no reason why we need do so with the technology at our disposal. What we can’t do, is feed the world using such methods. Probably. As George Monbiot has helpfully pointed out, if we did decide to adopt the proposals of biochar advocates, “we would either have to replace all the world’s crops with biomass plantations, causing instant global famine, or double the cropped area, trashing most of the remaining natural habitats.”

Anything along those lines would have to be part of a wider system of energy production and agriculture, but it’s surely a crucial part of the jigsaw, as I’m sure Big Al will agree after a little meditation on his Learjet (apologies if he Kayaked to Norway).

But the bigger point is that the Arctic is under multiple assault and we need to act.


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