The Magazine

The Polar Bears Are All Right

So cool it about the Arctic ice.

Apr 14, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 29 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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In 1817, nearly a century before Roald Amundsen first navigated the long-sought Northwest Passage, the Royal Society in London got word of "new sources of warmth" in the Arctic. The society was the Victorian-era equivalent of NASA, and its president reacted with great enthusiasm to the sudden prospect of discoveries "not only interesting to the advancement of science but also to the future intercourse of mankind and the commerce of distant nations."

Times change, as does the climate. New sources of warmth are no longer greeted with such good cheer. Last year's "record" melt of sea ice in the Arctic caused a flood of reporting on the growing threat from global warming. The statistic most tossed about put the area of open water in the Arctic at "six Californias" more than the summer average. The media coverage was mostly characterized by a deep anxiety about the fate of the polar bear. Little prospect for intercourse was seen in its future.

Then came the Arctic winter of 2007-08, described as "colder than average" by NASA researchers in a recent teleconference. The ice recovered remarkably quickly and by March, when it reached its annual maximum, had exceeded the three year average by some 4 percent.

Despite this unusually cold weather, scientists at NASA and elsewhere remain concerned about the state of the Arctic. They point to the loss of multiyear ice, which makes up the thickest sections of the icecap and is therefore more likely to survive the summer melt. Multiyear ice now represents less than 30 percent of overall ice cover, down from as much as 80 percent in the 1980s. They also point to the long-term trend, though long-term may be a misnomer. Reliable records on arctic ice go back only to 1979, when satellites first started to survey the poles. As Richard Lindzen, a prominent global warming skeptic and a professor at MIT, puts it, "this is a primitive field where nobody has much idea of anything."

Still, based on this short record, some scientists predict the Arctic may see ice-free summers as early as 2013. Julienne Stroeve, a researcher at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) who briefed Al Gore on the subject last fall, said she "wouldn't be surprised if that were to happen." Joey Comison, senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, is more cautious, saying only that the Arctic would lose its summer ice cover "within the century." Ignatius G. Rigor, who last year authored a NASA-led study on sea-ice decline, is reluctant to offer any forecast, though he does expect this summer's melt to break last year's record.

Suffice it to say that not everyone agrees the end of the summer sea ice is nigh, but it is the prevailing view. The NSIDC's official projection has the Arctic ice-free in the summer months starting in 2030, and according to Stroeve, there is no way to reverse the process. "I think we are going to lose it," she says.

Which to any layman will raise an obvious question: So what?

Stroeve says there may be an impact on the weather further south. Some climate models show reduced rainfall and snowfall in the American southwest as a result of the loss of Arctic ice. Others show more precipitation in southern Europe, "but again, these are climate models, and they're not perfect. .  .  . There's no real consensus now." Beyond that, Stroeve says, "I'm not really sure at this point how it's all going to pan out, because we really don't know."

As Ignatius explains, to some extent how one views the loss of summer sea ice "depends on how you feel about polar bears." "This is a big loss of habitat" for the animals he said, and "for local subsistence hunters this is a retreat or a loss of the surface that they hunt on."

But there's good news, too. The Inuit might find better work in the oil and gas sector, as high energy prices and melting ice make the Arctic an increasingly attractive area for exploration. A few weeks ago, an ambitious U.S. firm with a bent for publicity, Arctic Oil and Gas, petitioned the United Nations for the right to act as the "sole development agent" in the extraction of what they estimate to be 400 billion barrels of oil beneath the Arctic seabed. Shipping promises another windfall for the sparsely populated region. A Denver-based entrepreneur purchased the Canadian port of Churchill on the Hudson Bay for just $7 in 1997, hoping that he might cash in to the tune of as much as $100 million a year once the Northwest Passage becomes a viable shipping lane. The benefits of warming to consumers may be substantial.