Harrow and Hillingdon Geological Society

Cape Farewell

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Cape Farewell: science, art and music in the high Arctic.

Dr Simon Boxall
(School of Oceanography & Earth Science,
National Oceanographic Centre,
University of Southampton)

The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) has about 450 scientists, including geologists, oceanographers and marine biologists. This presentation covered climate change and some of the recent NOC involvement.

Climate change, is it happening?

The answer is undoubtedly yes. It is illustrated by photographs taken in 1938 of a glacier with two peaks poking out behind it and in 2005 from the same place the two peaks are clearly visible but there is no glacier. Similarly photographs of the Fram in 1895 surrounded by ice in the fjord and of the Nordlic at the same time of year in the same fjord in 2007 completely ice-free. Glaciers are melting at an astounding rate.

Media myths of climate change

Sea level to rise 7m in 10 years – Based on the premise that the Greenland ice cap were to melt almost overnight. While it is true that if the whole of the Greenland ice cap were to melt sea level would rise by 7m but the ice cap is 4km thick and the middle of it is growing by 2-3cm per year due to increased precipitation in a warmer world (as is the Antarctic ice cap). So is the Greenland ice cap melting? Not exactly, it is round the edge but not in the middle. Panic calls from the press about a 7m difference in the tide forecast for Portsmouth caused concern. There are 180 different frequencies of tides which come together every so often to produce higher than normal tides but 7m seemed excessive and it proved to be a misreading of a 7mm difference.

Freezing winters are a sign of cooling, not warming – It is simply not true. There is less ice in Arctic than before and cold air is forced down towards Britain. A warmer Arctic actually means a colder winter in Britain.

Summer floods caused by climate change – This is probably true to some extent but it does not necessarily indicate a trend. The establishment of trends needs a record over tens to hundreds of years.

English wine crops herald global warming – this is not true it is just down to viticulture.

What is the evidence

Evidence of temperature rise is shown in the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IGPCC) renowned “hockey stick” diagram, showing temperature changes over the last 1,000 years. While there are wobbles, we are now 0.7oC warmer than we have been, which is way above the uncertainties in the record. 7 of the warmest years on record have occurred in the last 10 years.

The evidence that the warming is caused by CO2 is also convincing. CO2 remained pretty constant at 280ppb to the start of the Industrial Revolution and then started to rise. There has been a 33% increase to over 400ppb in the last 100 years. The CO2 effect is caused by the fact that energy from the sun in the form of light passes through CO2 and warms the earth but this is re-radiated as thermal energy, which is reflected by CO2. We do need CO2, since without it the earth would be a snowball, but it is increasing to unprecedented levels in the history of humans.

How do we know past conditions?

We have reliable data on global temperatures for about 60 years and there is now a massive array of technology giving rise to oceanographic data, which is all freely available. Beyond that we have ice cores, which record melt/freeze cycles and contain air bubbles, from which past temperatures can be obtained. These go back 10,000 years. We also have deep ocean cores, which contain a record of the last 80million years. Ocean cores are a sedimentary record of past events, which provide a very accurate means of measuring past climate in the short to medium term.

What is happening in the Arctic?

The IGPCC report in 2003 predicted maximum and minimum ice cover for 2010-30, 2040-60 and 2070-90. Winter maximum cover did not show much change over these periods but the predicted minimum September cover halves towards the end of the 21st century.

In the summer of 2007, we had the lowest ice cover in records, 2008 had the second lowest, 2009 the equal second lowest and in 2010 we had a new record low. Significantly most of it was one-year ice, which is very thin and there was very little 3- to 4-year ice, which normally forms the bulk of the ice cover in summer. Thus we are now at the 2070-2090 level according to the 2003 model and it is expected that there will be no ice at the Pole within the next 15-20 years.

Concerns about ocean circulation

When sea water freezes, the ice is pure water and contained salts are squeezed out into the surrounding water. The result is a very cold, very saline and very dense water mass, which sinks to form the deep water (from 500m down to the ocean bed at 4km) of the Atlantic. This draws in surface water (above 500m depth) from the Atlantic in the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift, which keeps Britain’s climate mild and the coast of Norway ice-free despite being at the same latitude as southern Alaska. If ice formation ceases then there is concern that the drawing northwards of the North Atlantic Drift and its extension in the Spitsbergen Current may slow down or stop.

The Cape Farewell cruises

As well as carrying out the science, the NOC is involved in communicating that science to the media and the general public. While most scientists are wary of the press, the worst thing you can do is not speak to them. This was exemplified by the “scandal” over e-mails from the University of East Anglia, which was blown up out of all proportion to its significance.

The Cape Farewell cruises arose from contact with the artist David Buckland, who had the idea of going to the Arctic with artists, musicians and scientists in order to communicate the messages on what is happening to the public. There have been 6 voyages in the small yacht Nordlic and among those involved have been the author Ian McEwan, the musician Jarvis Cocker, the sculptor Anthony Gormley and the comedians Marcus Brigstock and Bill Bailey as well as David Buckland and scientists from NOC. All have had a film crew and 4 documentaries have been produced, one each shown on BBC, Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel and one to be screened in the US in the autumn.

The voyages have had their moments. For example, in a vessel the size of Nordlic, it is advisable to stay 1km away from glaciers because of the risk of calving, which directly threatens vessels if the ice falls on them and also causes massive waves which equally threaten vessels. However, David Buckland’s art consists of projecting images onto structures and requires a very close approach (30m or so) in order to project onto glaciers.

The 2007 cruise started in Svalbard with the intention of going to Greenland, keeping close to the east coast to avoid the generally harsh weather conditions in the Greenland Sea, and then to Iceland. The scientific aim was to measure the last throes of the Gulf Stream in the Spitsbergen Current, using Argo floats, which sink to a pre-determined depth and periodically rise to the surface to transmit data (temperature, salinity and position to measure flows). It was found that very cold water at the surface (cold fresh water from melting glaciers in Spitsbergen) was masking the core of the Spitsbergen Current from satellite instruments. Energy in the Spitsbergen Current is equivalent to 10,000 nuclear power stations working at full power. The east Greenland coast would normally be ice free but because of the break-up of the Arctic ice, it was blown southward along the coast. As a result Nordlic had to traverse the Greenland Sea (a very unpleasant experience).

One of the art features involved someone donning a thermal suit and floating in the sea. Most of the crew avoided this but Marcus Brigstock had been below at the time and when he came on deck he asked what was going on. Having been told they were seeing if the thermal suit fitted anybody, he replied that it would fit him, not knowing what was involved. Needless to say, Marcus was floating in the sea in the name of art when all were amused to see a seal approaching to have a look. When they realised it was not a seal but a polar bear, Marcus made the fastest exit from the Arctic Ocean ever recorded, though it was probably equalled by one of the writers on board who decided he would enter the water (at -1.9oC) in swimming trunks.

For safety reasons, guns had to be carried at all times but none needed to be used to deter polar bears, though there was one occasion when, while filming a polar bear stalking a deer, another one approached behind them and when they turned round it was about 30 feet away. However, having been seen it then departed.

The 2008 cruise went to the west coast of Greenland, where most of the population live, with metropolises of up to 3,000 people. Investigations were made by Argo float off the Jacobsen Glacier, possibly the fastest moving glacier in the world and thought to be the source of the iceberg than sank the Titanic. Huge areas on the west coast are no longer freezing over in winter and one fjord has not frozen since 2006, having frozen every winter in living memory.

Technical help on the cruises included the downloading of ice maps produced by the Norwegian Meteorological Institute (NMI). These were all to the good on Monday to Friday but the NMI did not appear to work weekends, which was usually when ice was encountered.

Arctic oil exploration

The speaker was concerned about the potential effects of Arctic oil exploration. He had been involved in some aspects of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and, while this was bed, it was not catastrophic since the oil was rapidly degraded by bacteria. In the Arctic it is too cold for the bacteria to function effectively and a spill would be catastrophic.

What does this all mean to the people of Ruislip?

The Arctic is a barometer of climate change. The impact will be greater in the Tropics and will result in mass migration to avoid starvation. In addition, the vast majority of the population of the world live in coastal areas, which are all threatened by rising sea levels.

What can we do?

We need to change to reduce our carbon emissions. This does not necessarily require major lifestyle changes but it does require things like smaller and more efficient cars, using less energy and using alternatives to oil for electricity generation. Apart from anything else, the supply of oil is limited and Britain is nearing the end of its indigenous sources and becoming ever more dependent on countries like Russia.

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