Before the Ice Melts

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

Until the 1970s, the Arctic was considered a desert. We knew of polar bears and Right Whales, but were still fairly ignorant about life beneath the pack ice.

Then, largely through the research of Melnikov and other scientists, we came to understand the finely tuned web of life that persisted, miraculously it seemed, in the harshest of conditions. Algae, diatoms, krill and cteno-phores were the foundation of life here, producing a seasonal rain of organic matter that sustained Arctic Cod and clams, which in turn supported larger creatures like the Walruses, Narwhals and seals. And these, in the end, fed the indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit.

And that’s just the life below the ice. It took awhile to understand that the surrounding whiteness was itself alive. At one point, scientists recorded 140,000 individual animals in one cubic meter of ice. Not bad for a biological desert! But now, ironically, humankind may be helping to make a desert where we once believed one to be.

A recent report in the journal Science describes the momentous impact of climate change on ecosystems in the far north. Here global warming proceeds three to five times faster than in the middle latitudes. As is now well-known, last summer a Russian icebreaker found nothing but open water at the North Pole.

The author, Kevin Krajnik, reports that ice covers 15 percent less of the Arctic today than in 1980. Fifty years ago it averaged 10 feet thick. Today, it has shrunk to six. In other words, the earth isn’t just “thinning,” it’s balding.

Already the meltdown is having a devastating effect on wildlife. Krajnik describes entire caribou herds falling through thin ice and drowning. He finds murres being killed by swarms of mosquitoes, now able to thrive in the far north. He exposes the underbelly of the icepack, where melted freshwater favors algae at the expense of diatoms, thus robbing the food chain of its basic building block. He sees ringed seal pups on faltering floes dumped into the fatally frigid sea. He laments the plight of the black guillemot, a land bird that feeds on ever fewer and ever more distant packs of ice.

And most shockingly, perhaps, he speculates about the seemingly inevitable decline of the polar bear. Due to earlier melts, they are forced to abandon their dens and feeding areas on the pack ice prematurely. Krajnik observes a 15 percent decline in the weight and number of cubs over the past two decades.

This article joins others from around the world to form a blizzard of chilling evidence. Glaciers are melting down in the Himalayas and Alaska. Icepacks are receding unseasonably in the Chukchi Sea. And in Antarctica, a significant ice sheet in the interior of the continent seems to be on the move.

For the first time, scientists have demonstrated that glaciers within the West Ant-arctica Ice Sheet are losing large amounts of ice, thus contributing to a rise in sea levels around the globe. As reported in The New York Times, some 7.5 cubic miles of ice have melted in a mere eight years—an unprecedented amount—according to scientific observers. In all, the glacier has thinned by nearly 36 feet.
What does it all mean? The consequences of polar warming may
remain impossible to predict with absolute certainty, but they are not a
total mystery.

If large areas of polar ice disappear, the Earth will lose much of its ability to reflect solar radiation. More absorbed radiation means even
higher temperatures. Glacial melting dumps freshwater into the ocean. In large amounts, this influx may slow the transfer of heat via the conveyor belt of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, which supplies Europe and North America with abundant fish and a temperate climate.

In addition, when polar ice melts, the sea level rises. A melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could cause the sea-level to rise as much as 45 feet. And even the separation of a large chunk can cause a moderate change. While scientists assure us that it will take several centuries for this to happen, the prospect is bad news for the growing billions who crowd the coastal flood plains of the world.

Once these mechanisms have gained momentum, all bets are off.
Few of us dive in the Arctic or Antarctic. But we should be very concerned about events there. Many of the creatures we most enjoy observing are nourished by the polar food web. And all marine organisms—the Nautilus of Palau as much as the Dugong of the Comoros—are affected by changes in global climate. The havoc wrought by successive El Niños should have taught us a thing or two about the caprices of ocean currents.

On a deeper level, I worry that as we have seen in rainforests and on coral reefs, we are helping to destroy another major ecosystem before we even fully understand it. The poles are wonderful laboratories. But their story will be meaningless unless we are willing to use this information to make real progress on reducing our contribution to global warming. We cannot undo the past, and to a great extent, we cannot undo the immediate future. But decisive and immediate action can still prevent the Arctic from becoming the wasteland we once thought it to be.