Monday, December 26, 2011

Arctic Q & A

HANOVER — Jackie Richter-Menge wears a lot of hats, but the most notable might be the trade mark bright pink fleece she takes out for Arctic research expeditions. Richter-Menge is also a civil engineer, a mother of two and lead editor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card, an annual assessment of the Arctic environment that provides up-to-date information for policy-makers, educators and others.
     Though Richter-Menge has written extensively for scientific journals about sea ice in some of the world’s harshest and more remote regions, the Arctic Report Card is meant to reach a broader audience — to get hard facts and observations from the scientific community out to the general public.
     This year’s Arctic Report Card (a misnomer of sorts, because it doesn’t include any “grades”) is the largest and most comprehensive since the project began in 2006. Released in early December, it includes data and essays from 121 researchers in 14 countries. Some of the reports are to be expected: sea ice is continuing to melt, and ocean temperatures are continuing to warm. But there are some surprises, too: whales from opposite sides of the world are meeting in the Arctic Ocean for the first time in a very long time.
    One of the conclusions of the 2011 Arctic Report Card, says Richter-Menge, is that scientists believe data has now been collected for a sufficient number of years to indicate that sweeping changes in the region are not just a fluke: they’re the “new normal,” and will affect not only humans and animals living in the far north, but much of the planet for years to come.
     The Valley News met up with Richter-Menge in her office at Hanover’s Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory last week. The following is an edited transcript.
     VN: How does what’s going on in the Arctic affect people besides those who live in the Arctic Circle? 
     JRM: I would love to see David Lettermen do one of his street questions on “Is the U.S. an Arctic nation?” because I think the majority of people would say no, it’s not. We tend to forget about the fact that Alaska makes us an Arctic nation. It affects us directly because it is part of the United States. You can hear the controversy going on in the U.S. about the development of oil and gas in the Alaska region.
     It also affects us directly because we’re starting to see more and more links between the weather systems up in the Arctic and what’s happening down here. For instance, the past couple winters there’s been what they call an “outbreak of Arctic cold” in this area. The way the weather system is set up, the cold air in the Arctic kind of stayed in the Arctic and kept it cold. But the past couple winters, what we’ve seen is a surge of the cold weather from the Arctic pushing south and into the Northeast. When the cold air comes down into the lower latitudes, it pushes warm air up into the Arctic and sets it up for even more melting.
     VN: It’s like a vicious circle.
     JRM: You can think of the Arctic as one of the planet’s thermostats. It’s got this bright white sea ice cover that sends sunlight back to space to help keep the planet cool. When that melts, it’s replaced by very dark ocean, which absorbs sunlight. Because it keeps absorbing sunlight, it’s getting warmer and warmer, and that causes the sea ice cover to reduce even further.
     The Arctic basin is like a bathtub surrounded by continents. In the wintertime, it’s totally filled up with ice. In the summer it melts — but it doesn’t all melt, there’s still a slug of ice in the center. What’s been happening over the past few years is the amount of open water in the summertime has increased significantly. There are projections that the Arctic Ocean will be repeatedly open by probably mid-century.
     VN: What are the implications of that? 
     JRM: It does a lot of things. In addition to changing weather systems and wind patterns and such, the persistence of this melting is beginning to affect the marine ecosystem. We can see that from the little tiny phytoplankton all the way up to the marine mammals. In terms of phytoplankton, there’s more sunlight and it’s warmer so there’s more of them growing. But marine mammals depend on sea ice cover for their habitat, so the loss of ice is affecting them negatively. There are winners and losers.
     VN: Are whales winners or losers? 
     JRM: Well, it depends on the year. This year, whale pods are in communication (laughs). Whales from the Atlantic region saw whales from the Pacific region for the first time in our lifetimes because they could get through the sea ice. They can actually co-mingle. That was a big thing this year.
     In addition to the marine mammals affected, people are also beginning to see this area that was very foreboding and remote become more accessible. Oil and gas companies are deciding that it’s worth the time and investment to figure out how to recover oil and gas deposits there.Tourist ships are making more and more visits to the Arctic, which is also risky. There’s concern that a ship that’s not ice hardened would get caught in an ice field. There are not any bases up there to do search and rescue effectively.
     The other thing that’s happening is with more open water is a navigable sea route opening up north of the Eurasian continent. This sea route cuts out a lot of time compared to going through the Suez Canal. It’s about a third shorter.
     VN: How much of this report, and the work you do, involves climate change? 
     JRM: The Arctic Report Card is not so much a report on climate change as it is on the conditions in the Arctic. What we try to do is to pull together a report that’s observationally based, as opposed to based in models. We just want to provide hard facts.The goal is really to try to make something that’s accessible not only to scientists but also to policy makers and students. We’re trying to make it more accessible as time goes on, because part of our job is to educate those who are making (or will be making) decisions.
      Though we try to give the most current picture of what’s going on in the Arctic, whenever possible we put that in the context of historical records. For instance, we looked at the sea ice cover of this past year, but we put that in the context of what we’ve observed since satellites were first put up in 1979. We have about a 30-year record.
     Obviously there’s a link into climate change, because this provides some of the most compelling evidence we have of the warming climate. There’s this thing we call Arctic amplification: if you look at the climate warming over the last 30 years, the average increase around the planet is about 1 to 2 degrees centigrade. In the Arctic, it’s 2 to 4 degrees.
We might want to argue about why it’s happening, but we know now that it’s basically happening.
     VN: Although your job is simply to present evidence and facts and observations and let people do with it what they will, what would you personally like to see come out of this work?     
     JRM: I would like people to understand that the climate is definitely warming and there are implications and we need to really begin to commit to looking ahead at what is coming toward us and making decisions accordingly. In the U.S., we spend a lot of time educating ourselves because we have the ability to do that. It’s a bit of a privilege, but you will see amongst our peers that the U.S. is one of the last places where people are still wondering if climate change is real. I’ve done work in other countries, and everybody’s like, ‘What gives? Why is the U.S. not on board with this?’ In some ways it’s kind of embarrassing to be a climate researcher form the U.S. because your scientific peers look at you and are like, ‘Well? Why can’t you get the word across?’ (Shrugs, looks up at ceil ing and laughs). I don’t know. We’re trying out damndest.
     So I would really like to see that part of the debate end. If you look at the population of the U.S., people like to go to the coasts. So let’s deal with the issue of sea level rise and how that’s going to impact infrastructure. Let’s consider what were going to do as far as being better stewards of the planet, how were going to be more creative with our energy. All of those things can be positive economically, but we just can’t seem to get in front of this. We’re still caught up in the debate of whether this is an issue or not, and I’d love to see that change.
     The NOAA Arctic Report Card can be accessed at

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