Polar science diary

Image caption,
Sue Nelson is hosting three polar exchange sessions at the conference

Science writer and broadcaster Sue Nelson is at the world's largest polar science conference, which is taking place in Oslo, Norway from 8-12 June. Experts have gathered to discuss everything polar - from penguins and sea ice to permafrost and Inuit communities. She is writing a daily diary for BBC News about her time there.

Friday 11 June: Fever pitch

Across the Arctic, bore holes are drilled into permafrost - the frozen ground upon which many communities live - so that sensors can measure the planet's health.

"It's like sticking a thermometer into the Earth," explained Antoni Lewkowicz from the University of Ottawa, "and the patient has a fever."

Prompted by International Polar Year, a project assessed temperature changes in permafrost over thirty years. The results were published for the first time during the polar science conference and show that, in North America and parts of Russia, temperatures have risen by a steady 0.2 - 0.3 degrees C each decade.

"In North Alaska it's worse," said Lewkowicz. "The permafrost has warmed by 2.5 degrees since 1985."

Lewkowicz, a member of the International Permafrost Association, is in no doubt about the importance of their findings. "We can see what's happening in the permafrost all the way round the Arctic for the first time and in some places it's actually thawing. Permafrost doesn't lie."

In areas covering northern Sweden, Finland, Norway and north-west Russia, a winter thaw is affecting both small and large communities, from reindeer herders to the forestry industry.

Reindeer eat lichen beneath the snow during winter but thawing causes a crust of ice and stops reindeer reaching their food.

"In Sweden herders have to buy additional feeding pellets or hay," said Carina Keskitalo, a political scientist in the department of social and economic geography at the University of Umea, Sweden. "Some small herders can't afford this and are going out of business."

Even big business is suffering. "In forestry you need hard ground in order to harvest," said Keskitalo, "but you can't drive in the soft ground and in some areas you can't harvest."

The changes in climate are forcing companies to rethink their machinery. Communities are being forced to rethink their livelihoods. If ever any proof was needed of the sheer enormity and range of changes affecting our planet's poles, then this polar science conference has delivered.

Thursday 10 June: Winners and losers

Image caption,
Killer whales are moving in to new territories

The Arctic is home to all manner of creatures and not all of them are welcome. Over the last few years, killer whales have being spotted in areas where they've never been seen before - and the consequences are deadly.

The sea ice is melting and, without ice as a natural barrier, killer whales are entering new territories. For one of the world's most natural predators, a veritable feast awaits. For the seals, narwhals, belugas and other whales that make up their diet, it's a bloodbath.

When the balance of an ecosystem shifts, there are always winners and losers. In the Western Arctic diving sea ducks and walruses are definitely losers.

"The type of neighbourhood these creatures live in is changing," said biological oceanographer Jackie Grebmeier, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "Their food supply is declining because of the retreating ice."

The life cycles of many Arctic species are synchronised with the seasons. The timing of events along the food chain - such as the blooming of nutrient rich algae - has now become out of sync and this is affecting the clams, worms and small crustaceans that walruses feed on.

Walruses and sea ducks also use ice to rest on during feeding. Without ice platforms they use more energy as well as needing to dive deeper to try to find more food. Dr Grebmeier becomes visibly upset when describing lone walrus calves barking from stress.

Image caption,
Retreating ice means fewer places for walruses to rest during feeding

In 2008 the United Nations Environment Programme passed a resolution expressing "extreme concern" over the impact of climate change and highlighted potential consequences. These included the disappearance of sea ice, flora, fauna, permafrost peatlands and the decline of certain species.

The Arctic Biodiversity Trends 2010 report, officially launched at the conference this evening, provides evidence that some of these anticipated impacts are already taking place - and that the repercussions will be global.

Wednesday 9 June: Vuntut Gwitchin

Polar science is not all about penguins and polar bears. The changes in ice cover and permafrost are also affecting the lives and livelihoods of communities within the northern polar region.

Representatives from many of these communities are here - which explains the reindeer-skin Saami tents outside the conference hall entrance - and the colourful presence of traditional dress.

It took a second glance, however, to realise that one woman in a frilled skirt, silver tassled belt, embroidered shawl and red pom poms on her pointed leather shoes, was also sporting a modern Puma sports bag and trendy glasses.

I met Samantha Frost-Lindstrom from the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation community in the northern Yukon, Canada, to try and persuade her to be my guest on Friday's Polar Exchange.

Vuntut Gwitchin means "people of the lakes" and Samantha lives within the Arctic Circle in the Old Crow Flats. Currently working as a field assistant to a permafrost scientist, her community has already noticed considerable changes.

"Spring comes early, there's a lot less snow and the river is lower," she said.

As water is the only form of local transport to different camps in this isolated area, the change is a significant problem.

"There's not as much salmon as there was when I was little either," she added.

Hunting is an important way of life for the Vuntut Gwitchin. "We eat caribou three times a day."

There are now less people in the community and the loss of hunting, due to declining numbers of caribou, also means the young are not being taught traditional skills.

Shel Graupe, director of Natural Resources for the Vuntut Gwitchen Government, quoted one of the community elders. "Hard times are coming."

Tuesday 8 June: Polar Eurovision

The Norwegian Crown Prince Haakon joined 2,000 polar scientists this morning for the official conference opening. A choir of white clad youths could be seen singing sweetly on the screens outside.

It reminded me of the recent Eurovision song contest in Oslo. "It was the same presenter," Linda Capper from the British Antarctic Survey laughed.

Fun stuff aside, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's special adviser on Arctic and Antarctic issues set most tongues wagging. Dr Arthur Chilingharov announced that Russia is proposing an international decade devoted to polar science.

Obviously a two-year-long "International Polar Year" was not enough.

Image caption,
The upper limit of sea level rise by the end of the century could be 2m

The proposal is being warmly received as all agree that much more science needs to be done at the poles - especially when lives and livelihoods are at stake.

Professor Tim Naish, one of my guests in today's Polar Exchange session, couldn't be clearer about the risks ahead.

Director of the Antarctic Research Centre at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, Professor Naish told me: "The international scientific community assessed all the latest science post Copenhagen and it's converging on agreeing a sea level rise of 1m by the end of the century."

This is double the figure quoted in the IPCC report - possibly because the dynamic effects of large ice sheets were not included.

Naish wasn't finished. "It's heading towards an upper limit of 2m."

The impact would be considerable. "It's huge," he agreed. "One-hundred-and-fifty-million people live within one metre's elevation above sea level."

Understandably, our first polar exchange theme concerns sea levels. There is dismay at the lack of trust surrounding the effects of climate change because these people are at the front line and have seen it for themselves.

And the news isn't good.

Preview: Lost in Translation

Question: When is a year not a year? Answer: when it's International Polar Year.

This ambitious scientific programme, concentrating on the Arctic and Antarctic, ran from March 2007 until March 2009. A two-year year, in other words.

But it's hardly surprising when there's so much to cover - be it rising sea levels, tracking sea birds or how killer whales are invading the Arctic due to melting ice.

This week many of the scientists who completed projects for International Polar Year are descending on the small town of Lillestrom near Oslo.

They will share research and early findings to provide the most updated picture of what is going on at the poles of our Earth.

More than 2,000 people from 60 countries are expected. Many arrived several days ago for pre-conference meetings but the official start is tomorrow.

Appropriately, for a conference on polar science, everyone is going to Oslo's City Hall tonight for an "icebreaker".

I am here to host three Polar Exchange sessions - each based on the X-Change events I also host for the British Science Association - informal interviews with scientists in a café or bar.

Something seems to have been lost in translation. I've just walked around the enormous conference venue and discovered that my "intimate" session is to be held in the enormous 3000 seat plenary hall.

More pop concert than café and not a bar in sight. Just row upon row of chairs...

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