The Beacon

Blog Tags: Global Warming

Arctic Sea Ice Found to Play Bigger Role in Global Carbon Cycle Than Assumed, Study Says

Arctic sea ice may help absorb CO2

Arctic Ice. (Photo: Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard / U.S. Geological Survey / Flickr Creative Commons)

It comes as no surprise that Arctic sea ice melt has a range of ecological and economic consequences, from hastening sea level rise to disrupting food chains. Polar bears, for instance, are having to change their diets from seals, their preferred prey source, to other options like snow geese, while ice melt is unlocking trillions of frozen microplastics into the marine environment.


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Hottest September Ever Recorded

©Wikimedia Commons

Well these records seem to be falling by the wayside quickly. Last month we learned that arctic summer sea ice had shrunk to its smallest extent ever. By a lot. Today we learn that this past September tied September of 2005 for the hottest on record.

One stat released by NOAA and quoted in the Reuters story, though, truly boggles the mind:

"In addition to being hottest since 1880, the month was the 36th consecutive September and 331st consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.

The last time September temperatures were below that average was 1976, and the last time any month was below that average was February 1985."

In other words, not since Marty McFly saved Hill Valley with his Delorean time machine has planet Earth experienced a month below the 20th century temperature average.

Learn more about climate change and what you can do to help.


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Uncovering Surprising Blooms in the Arctic

polarbear

A changing Arctic spells bad news for polar bears and other animals ©Michael Stephens

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.’s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large “blooms” of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.

Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.

The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.

Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.  

Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.


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Guest Post: Dispatch from the Maldives

the maldives

The crystal waters of the Maldives. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. In this post, Jon reports from the Maldives on the effects of climate change -- and marine protection -- on the country's waters.

There are few places on the planet as remote as the Maldives. Landfall is a thousand miles away from much of the long string of 1,200 islands, most of which are little more than thin, uninhabited strips of sand. Diving into the heart of a Maldivian lagoon, it is easy to imagine you are alone in a distant paradise.

Yet when I did just that a few days ago, in the heart of the Baa Atoll — 463 square miles of aquamarine Indian Ocean recently named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — something didn’t feel, or look, quite like paradise.

The ocean, though jaw-droppingly beautiful, was a bathtub warm 86 degrees F. Diving to its shallow floor it was quickly clear that the realm below sea level here has been badly impacted in recent years by a combination of man and Mother Nature and resulting fast-warming temperatures.

The coral reefs of the Maldives were first badly damaged in 1998, when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño raised sea level temps above 90 degrees. The result then was that 70 to 90 percent of the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls were badly “bleached,” the warm temperatures killing off the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color.

While since then many of the reefs have been recovering, according to a report by the Maldives-based Marine Research Center, another warming last year (2010) estimated that “10-15 percent of shallow reef coral is now completely white, while 50-70 percent has begun to pale.”


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Melting Ice Beckons Ships, Oil Drills to Arctic

© Oceana

The Arctic’s Northeast Passage is home to walruses, beluga whales, narwhals, and many other marine animals, most of whom have probably never seen an oil tanker or shipping vessel. Unfortunately, thanks to global climate change, that could soon change.

As the planet continues to warm, the coveted Northeast Passage has become ice-free and thus open to cargo ships, oil drillers, and fishing vessels for the first time.

There’s huge incentive for commerce and industry to use the Northeast Passage. The New York Times writes that the opening of the Passage shortens the travel time and reduces costs for shipping between Northern Europe and Asian markets. Companies like Exxon Mobil are attracted to the potential of oil and minerals in the Arctic seabed. And the elusive Arctic “Donut Hole,” a patch of international and unregulated waters in the center of the Ocean, is full of valuable fish including overfished Atlantic cod stocks. 

Offshore drilling, increased shipping traffic, and fishing vessels in the Northeast Passage threatens one of the great patches of marine wilderness in the world. Drilling in the Arctic could mean a spill in a place as remote as Northern Russia, which would make the Gulf of Mexico oil spill cleanup look like a cinch, primarily because cleanup mechanisms such as booms don’t work properly in icy waters.

We’ve been campaigning against offshore oil drilling to protect vulnerable Arctic habitats. We'll continue working with local native communities to ensure that future generations will see a healthy and vibrant Arctic. You can help by supporting our work to fight oil drilling in the Arctic.


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Arctic Sea Ice at Second Lowest on Record

grey seal

A grey seal. © Oceana/Carlos Minguell

The latest sea ice data are out, and they aren't pretty. Here’s the latest:

  • Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center believe that Arctic sea ice reached its smallest extent for this year on September 9, at 4.33 million square kilometers. If this is the case, the only year since 1979 with less ice was 2007, but they note that if wind conditions change, the area covered by ice may still shrink.

The sea ice data in particular are drawing a lot of attention because sea ice maintenance affects weather patterns around the globe, melting ice contributes to warmer oceans and rising sea levels, and unusual ice patterns can wreak havoc on the lives of native humans and animals, particularly polar bears, which can drown, and walruses, which can starve.


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Guest Post: In the Eyes of the Polar Bear

Image courtesy Emily Goldstein.

Editor’s note: Guest blogger Emily Goldstein was a finalist in Oceana’s first annual Ocean Heroes contest in 2009 for her work to convince thousands of people and dozens of large companies to reduce their energy use, saving 16 million pounds of CO2.

Polar bears stand for everything that is wild and free, ruling over the Arctic as the creature we all associate with the North Pole. They are the apex predators in the Arctic, admired for their power and majesty. But the polar bear has recently become well-known for another, more deadly reason: they have become victims of climate change. Their world of ice is melting away, threatening their very existence.

In November I traveled to a remote town in northern Canada to talk with scientists about the polar bear’s perilous situation. Churchill is a village near the Hudson Bay, where ice first begins to form each year. This was my third visit there, but each time I go I feel even more privileged to be able to experience the world of the bears. The first time I looked into the eyes of a polar bear, I knew that I had to do something to save these amazing creatures from extinction. 


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New Google Earth Tour: Ocean Acid Test

Oceana has once again teamed up with Google to create a powerful new educational tool about the oceans. In the new Google Earth 6.0 tour, “Ocean Acid Test,” Oceana scientist Dr. Jeffrey Short explains the science and effects of ocean acidification, particularly the threats facing shell-producing creatures, such as crabs, lobsters and corals.

Coinciding with the start of the United Nations’ COP16 climate conference in Cancun, Mexico, the tour was unveiled today at Google Earth’s Outreach hompage: www.google.com/cop16 and will also be revealed at the Google Earth booth in Cancun. Oceana will also be holding a presentation at COP 16 to highlight the global threat of ocean acidification. 

Check it out for yourself below and then take action to stop ocean acidification!

 


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Walruses Forced Ashore by Melting Sea Ice

As DailyKos and the New York Times reported yesterday, melting sea ice has forced more than 10,000 walruses ashore in the Alaskan Arctic. Normally they rest on ice floes in the summer, periodically diving for food.

And this isn’t the first time. In fact, this is the third time in the last four years that the walruses have alarmingly turned into landlubbers.

The future isn’t looking good for this ice-loving lumberer, unless we take action to stop climate change and protect the Arctic from further catastrophic warming.


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Climate Bill Wilts; Planet Gets Hotter

For those of us who had been holding out hope for a comprehensive bill that would curb U.S. climate emissions and promote renewable energy, disappointment and frustration have officially set in.

The Senate has scrapped plans for an attempt to push through a climate bill this summer.

This is especially disturbing because the proposals being considered were designed to meet the industry halfway by using market-based solutions that allow companies to reduce emissions in the way that they believe is most cost-effective. This approach diverges from the approaches used before in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, for example. But industry still shot it down. 

Sadly, this is a classic example of “political reality” versus “real reality”.


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