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Science
ARCTIC MELTDOWN
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Richard Hollingham looks at receding arctic ice
Tuesday 16 August 2005 11.00-11.30am

In 1996 US entrepreneur and explorer Gary Comer took his boat to the Northwest Passage in search of adventure. Inspired by the stories of early explorers like Roald Amundsen, who had tried to navigate the winding route through northern Canadian sea ice, Comer expected high adventure. Instead he found where there had once been ice, there was now easily navigated open water.

View from Comer's ship
Melting Ice flows away from the Greenland Ice Sheet
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Comer is not the only one to notice the change. For years, climate models have been predicting that global warming will show up first, and most severely, in the Arctic regions. Now scientists working there are seeing evidence of the dramatic change for themselves. Glaciers that have retreated one and a half kilometres in 150 years are common while the ice covering the sea is disappearing at ten times that rate.

Now both Comer and the scientists have joined forces. Inspired, or rather astonished, by his 1996 passage, Gary Comer decided set up a fellowship programme for scientists to study the Arctic Meltdown. He's so far spent some $40 million funding more than 100 climate scientists from Norway to Australia who he regularly invites aboard his boat to see the evidence for themselves.

In Arctic Meltdown, Richard Hollingham joins Gary Comer on one of his expeditions through the north. Accompanied by oceanographers, climatologists and ecologists he discovers why the Arctic is so vulnerable to climate change and what the implications of this meltdown maybe.

Take the North West passage. Nowadays, ice strengthened ships routinely pass through its icy waters, and the US Navy has just predicted that in 10 years' time, the North-West Passage could be open to ordinary shipping for a month each summer. What's more, the Northern Sea Route across the top of Russia could allow shipping for at least two months a year in as little as five years. These new routes will slash the distances for voyages between Europe and East Asia by up to a half.

Then there's the Wildlife. From polar bears to tiny Arctic plankton, every species in the delicate Arctic ecosystem will suffer catastrophically from the loss of the ice. Many will never recover. Some experts predict that the polar bears of Hudson Bay will be extinct in 20 -30 years time because they will be unable to spend enough time on the melting sea ice to feed.

But it is not just the animals that will suffer. The people of the Arctic also face dramatic change. Traditionally peoples like the Inuit have relied on the stable seasons and the consistent migration of animals for their livelihood. Now faced with dwindling populations of seals and caribou and frozen tundra turned to slush, the Inuit are facing crisis point. Hunters following age old trails now find themselves falling through the delicate veneer of ice that now covers the oceans while "environmental refugees" are being forced to leave their traditions and seek new lives in the south.

Arctic Meltdown weighs up the extent and implications of the imminent ice breakup.
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