Headlines at 21st Century Tech for September 21, 2012

Today is the traditional start of autumn in the Northern Hemisphere so it seems fitting that headlines this week focus on stories about climate trends and forecasts. As always I encourage you to comment, ask questions and provide input on topics I write about or feature.

Arctic Sea Ice Update – Is Less Better? Not According to Scientists

Last week the annual Arctic ice minimum was reached. It’s a funny thing. The peak heat of summer arrives 3 months before the ice melt reaches its minimum. What’s so different about this year’s minimum? Arctic sea ice shrank to 3.41 million square kilometers (1.32 million square miles), the lowest summer minimum observed since we began studying sea ice by satellite. In fact this year’s  minimum is 50% lower than the average calculated from observations between 1979 and 2000.

At the Centre for Earth Observation Science, University of Manitoba, research scientists have expressed concern not just about the minimum. David Barber, Director of the Centre, describes the remaining sea ice that has not melted as “rotten” almost to the North Pole.

And what does he mean by “rotten?” Here’s his exact quote: “The multi-year ice, what’s left of it, is so heavily decayed that it’s really no longer a barrier to transportation.” He goes on to state that the ice surface looks like Swiss Cheese and that a ship could have traversed the North Pole this year, that’s how much thinning occurred. Barber forecasts that by 2020, plus or minus five years, the Arctic ocean will become seasonally ice free. Should we be worried?

variable sea ice

In this picture you can see how sea ice can degrade. The more transparent ice is thinner. Thicker sea ice tends to be older and covered with snow.  Source: NASA

Boreal Forests in Northern Canada May Awaken as Our Atmosphere Warms

The Arctic Archipelago in Canada’s north was once the site of oak, willow, pine, spruce and hickory forests. That was 2.6 million years ago. But not today because these northern islands are permanently frozen, or at least, frozen right now. Scientists studying these ancient mummified forests, such as Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier, of the University of Montreal, believe that changing Arctic temperatures may result in the re-emerging of boreal forests on these remote northern islands.

The trees of these ancient forests grew when average annual temperatures were around 0 Celsius (32 Fahrenheit). Compare that to current average temperatures of -15 Celsius (5 Fahrenheit) and now look at annual mean surface temperatures in regions north of 64 degrees latitude and how they are trending, a rise of 2.28 Celsius (4.1 Fahrenheit) from the mean average between 1951 and 1980. Should temperatures continue to rise, will the trees come back? Probably but it will take some time.

For Guertin-Pasquier there is an additional mystery. How did trees in the past survive in the darkness of northern winters above the Arctic Circle?  The mystery may soon be resolved should the Arctic continue to warm throughout the 21st century.

peat and wood samples from Arctic forests

Seen here, peat and wood samples from the mummified forests of Bylot Island in the Canadian High Arctic.                                        Source: Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier

Global Powers Fight for Resources Uncovered by Climate Change

For every victim there is a victor. The victims of climate change in the Arctic are the people, the animals and the plants that will find their world a very different place. For many it means extinction. The victors, on the other hand, governments, energy and resource developers, and owners of shipping companies, who are salivating at the potential wealth that a warming Arctic may yield.

The action in the Arctic involves Greenland (nominally Denmark), the United States, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Canada and Russia. All have territorial claims on islands and coastal waters. At stake are rare earths, oil, gas and other minerals. Joining these Arctic countries are other global players with China leading the pack to have the Arctic declared a near-state with United Nations observer status, and to have the wealth of the Arctic shared by all humankind.

Forgotten in all this fighting for potential wealth is the issue of climate change and its impact on Arctic indigenous life. Instead of putting global policies in place to mitigate human impact on climate the community of nations are building up military presence, leasing offshore oil and gas exploration properties, prospecting for minerals to locate future mines, and sending ice breakers and ships through the Northeast and Northwest Passages. This August a Chinese ship navigated the Northeast Passage from the Bering Strait to Europe. Others will soon follow. What will this mean for the native Inuit people? What will it mean for polar bears and other Arctic wildlife?

Climate change and the future of the Arctic

Few places on Earth will feel the effect of climate change more than the Arctic. Seen here going clockwise from the top left: the polar bear’s hunting range on sea ice is increasingly under threat, Shell oil’s Arctic rig which recently discontinued drilling because of harsh conditions, the Inuit, the major inhabitants of the North, and the Xuelong or Snow Dragon, the Chinese oil tanker that recently traversed the Northeast Passage from China to the waters off Iceland.

Ocean Temperatures Update – New England and Atlantic Canada Waters Heating Up

This week, NOAA, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration in the United States, reported record high temperatures in water off the coast of New England. At the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in Nova Scotia, Canada, coastal water temperature measurements were 2 Celsius (3.8 Fahrenheit) degrees higher than normal.

The NOAA study also reported that the warmer temperatures were coincident with cod migration in coastal waters. The cod shifted north. This could have ramifications for many other ocean animal species. Part of a five year NOAA study it is expected that temperatures in 2012 will be the highest seen since monitoring began.

Is this evidence of global warming? No. The study is a local one after all. And scientists are quick to point out that we could see the water temperatures dip in the next few years. But what the study shows is local evidence of what may be a longer-term trend linked to a general rise in temperatures in both the atmosphere and ocean from the mid-latitudes to the poles.

cod moving north as water temperatures warm on U.S. east coast

Source: Derek Keats, MotherJones.com

Renewable Energy from Space Proposed to Mitigate Climate Change

Want to stop global warming? Stop burning fossil fuels on Earth to generate energy. Don’t want an ugly wind turbine messing up your seascape or scenic view? Don’t want to cover land with solar arrays, land that could be used for producing food?

Well there’s an answer and it comes from space scientists who want to put large solar arrays in stationary orbit above Earth and beam the energy collected back to the ground using laser and microwaves. This is not a new idea. It has been bandied about for years but the experience with solar arrays on the International Space Station is teaching us a lot about what materials work best in space. And recent innovations in solar panel materials and transmission technologies is starting to make  the idea seem palatable.

One major concern has always been, what happens if a bird or an airplane flies through the laser or microwave beam? Will it be diffuse enough not to cause an unintended consequence? Another concern, how to maintain these power sources once in geosynchronous orbit? If something fails will we have backup systems to ensure the lights stay on?

SERT sandwich concept from NASA

Source: NASA

A Postscript

I acknowledge you, my readers, who continue to inspire me to do more research and write every day. If you don’t see a daily posting it usually means I’m digging into a subject to learn more before putting words to electronic paper.

For those who follow me on Facebook, three more “likes” and I can begin to analyze traffic as it comes to that location. To the many thousand of you who visit this blog site regularly thank you for continuing to drop by. If you don’t already know, you can subscribe to 21st Century Tech and get new posting sent to your email inbox.

– Len Rosen

Len Rosen lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He is a researcher and writer who has a fascination with science and technology. He is married with a daughter who works in radio, and a miniature red poodle who is his daily companion on walks of discovery. More...