Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Coming soon

Monday, August 11, 2008

There's a Tundra in Our Backyard

Quantum Leap
Mail Today
July 29, 2008

The very mention of Tibet brings to our minds images of protesting monks and the Dalai Lama. But Tibet is much more than this and far more important to us than just being an irritant in Indo-China relations. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest store of ice – after the Arctic and the Antarctic – and like the two poles it is witnessing far reaching changes in its ecology. A recent report in scientific journal Nature has brought into focus the central role Tibet is playing in global climatic change, in general, and in India’s climate, in particular.

Like in the polar regions, ice in the Tibetan plateau is melting fast. Nearly 82 percent of its glaciers have retreated in the past half a century and 10 percent of its permafrost (permanently frozen ground – a mix of soil and ice) has degraded in past decade. The reasons for this melting are not far to seek. In summers, dust rising from deserts can go up to 10 km in the atmosphere. These dust particles both absorb and reflect sunlight – affecting the amount of radiation that reaches the plateau. The second important reason for changes in Tibetan ecology is the amount of black-carbon emissions from India and other countries in the region. When this black-carbon settles on glaciers, it darkens them, making them absorb more heat and they start melting. Chinese scientists have found that the melt season in Tibetan glaciers is beginning earlier and lasting longer.

The melting of glaciers and resulting formation of glacial lakes has increased the risk of flooding on the Northern slopes of the Himalayas. The thawing of permafrost could endanger the newly opened Qinghai-Tibet Railway line, as the ground below would subside the same way it is happening in the tundra. The most significant impact of the warming of Tibetan plateau would be on the Indian monsoon. As we know, monsoon is a result of interplay between thermal currents over the land and oceans. Warming of the plateau would lead to creation of a vast area of surface warmer than the air, thereby increasing the land-ocean pressure gradient and affecting the monsoon, the Nature report points out.

Chinese scientists – who have studied ice preserved in Tibetan glaciers as an indicator of changing climate – have concluded that warmer the plateau was, the weaker was the monsoon. An increase of 0.1 degree Centigrade was linked with a decrease of 100 millimeters in snow accumulation. Besides Indian monsoon, a warmer plateau would impact climatic changes on a global scale as well. So, it is high time that India – which has been exploring the Antarctic for the past two decades and has begun research in the Arctic recently – turns its eyes on the Third Pole as well.

Noon Moon or the Midnight Sun?

Mail Today July 27, 2008

Inuvik, our planet’s northernmost town, has a few surprises and icy splendours. And don’t be surprised if a 10- km taxi ride costs a whopper

Shivers, three degrees above the Arctic Circle” — this would be an unlikely name for a lounge bar anywhere else in the world, but not in Inuvik, the northernmost town of Canada situated in the Arctic Circle. Actually, names such as Polar Bread and Breakfast, Eskimo Inn, Arctic Chalet and Aurora Expeditions are commonplace in this little town, and you know that they aren’t exaggerating. Inuvik, which means place of man, is a land of contrasts located 68 degrees North. In the summer, it is the proverbial land of the midnight sun, and in winters, it presents the surreal experience of ‘noon moon’. Both the seasons are enjoyable and have plenty of outdoor activities. Because I have been there right at the beginning of summer and basked in the bright daylight, I would say summer is most enjoyable.


You would agree once you look at the average temperature chart — the mean temperature is minus- 9.7 degrees Celsius. The coldest month is January with an average of minus-56 degrees; July is warmest with an average of 30 degrees. If you wish to enjoy the famed Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis dancing in the winter, you can be in Inuvik a couple of months before as well.

In March, you’d be able to experience about 18 hours of daylight as well as Northern Lights and frost covers, while temperatures range between minus-25 and minus-30! Winter activities such as dog sledding, ice fishing and snowmobiling continue till the end of April. But the best time to visit Inuvik is June, which heralds the beginning of summer and 24-hour daylight season, with temperatures hovering around a comfortable 3 to 4 degrees. The town, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, was the first planned town north of the Arctic Circle. It is a gateway for the Western Arctic and acts as a link between far-off Arctic communities and the rest of the country. All this, however, does not mean it’s bustling with activity.

In fact, Inuvik has only one main street —the Mackenzie Road, which connects the town to the Dempester Highway in the south. Almost all main buildings of the town are located on this street. Just across the street, about a kilometer away, is the Eastern channel of the mighty Mackenzie river and the Town Dock on its banks. The Arctic Ocean is 97 km north. The Western Arctic Regional Visitor Centre — which opens from June to September — gives a panoramic view of the region’s culture, art and history. Just remember that you are almost on top of the world, which is home to a unique ecosystem.

The region sits on top of frozen earth — it is a mix of soil and ice called permafrost. The Centre’s staff can help you plan a suitable itinerary depending on your interests. If you are a wildlife enthusiast and an adventure type, you can travel by boat, hire a snowmobile, a caravan, drive on the rugged Dempster or just charter a Twin Otter to explore the Arctic. You can watch natural delights such as a Pingo – conical hills dotting Western Arctic. Tailor-made tundra and Arctic trails can be arranged as well. If you want low-cost options, go in for walking trails, fishing or birding, or visit communities and see unique flowers and wildlife around Inuvik.

If you are lucky, you can spot a polar bear just a few kilometers from Inuvik. The town is best explored on foot. As soon as you enter the town, you would come across the Igloo Church – a dome-shaped architectural marvel designed to withstand the harsh weather. A few paces away is the Inuvik Family Centre, which has a waterslide, swimming pool and gym. Across the road is the North Mart — a place to buy everything, from a phone card to winter gear, and to grab some fast food.

Further down is another landmark of the town – the Log House, or the Ingamo Hall, built from about 1,000 logs (each 35 to 45 feet long) rafted 1,300km down the Mackenzie river. Just a word of caution. Remember that you are not just in the northernmost town of Canada, but in the extreme north of the planet itself. So the price tags reflect the fact that goods have been transported from several thousand kilometers away. A meal of a large-sized burger, French fries and can of beer may cost about 15 Canadian dollars, snowmobile rentals start at 99 dollars, a 10-km taxi ride from the airport to the town costs 30 dollars, and a decent room starts at 100 dollars a night.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Ice-free North Pole likely this summer : Mail Today Exclusive

By Dinesh C Sharma, Onboard CCGS Amundsen in the Arctic Ocean

We are very close to witnessing one of the most dramatic impacts of climate change so far – an ice-free North Pole at the end of this summer.

This means there would be no ice by the end of September in the North Pole. It will be just open sea. The North Pole would then depend on seasonal formation of ice during winter – the ice which usually melts down again in summer – instead of perennial multi-year ice. However, it is some more years before the rest of the Arctic also witnesses ice-free summers.

The North Pole – which is made up of ice accumulating over years - does not melt even during summer time. But this multi-year ice is melting fast due to rising temperature in the Arctic. Latest satellite imagery shows that the current ice cover in the North Pole is made of mostly thin ice.

The prediction is based on field observational data in the Canadian Arctic as well as imageries of ice cover from different satellites. If an ice-free North Pole becomes a reality this summer, it would be way ahead of projections made by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other climate models.

"We are not talking models, but field data. We are actually predicting that the North Pole may be free of ice this year for the first time. There will be no multi-year ice left there. It is happening extremely quickly" – this is the categorical statement from Prof David Barber, leading Arctic expert who heads the multi-country Circumpolar Flaw Lead (CFL) Study Project in the Canadian Arctic. "Existing models project Arctic ice to be totally gone sometime between 2013 and 2030. Clearly, all models are underestimating than what observational data tells us".

Since the Arctic plays critical role in the global conveyor belt of oceanic currents which contributes to different weather conditions globally, its sooner-and-faster-than-expected meltdown would have wide ranging climatic effect all over the world. Scientists believe that there is a 'tele-connection' between the Northern polar region and the intensity of the Indian monsoon, though its exact mechanism is not fully understood.

The sea ice cover in the Arctic Ocean comes to a minimum in September and starts to grow out again after this, getting to its maximum extent in March and then shrinking back towards the North Pole. This is the natural cycle of sea ice witnessed for at least a million years. Now this cycle is rapidly changing.

At the end of the summer melt season in September 2007, the Arctic ice cover had reached its lowest since satellite records are kept – 4.3 million square kilometers or 39 percent below the long-term average from 1979 to 2000. The September rate of sea ice decline since 1979 is now about 10 percent per decade, or 72,000 square kilometers per year. During May 2008, the daily ice extent continued to be below the long-term average and was close to low levels seen in May 2007, as per data from the US National Snow and Ice Data Center. Some members of an independent group called "Study of Environmental Arctic Change" estimate the ice extent in September 2008 to be as low as 3.1million sq km.

"The extent of ice cover was very high in February 2008 and there was hope that the ice would recover. But this ice was very thin as it did not form until much later in the year and as a consequence, it has broken up already. We should have had ice till the end of July. We don't have it in June," pointed out Barber while talking to Mail Today in the fast ice region of Franklin Bay. "Right now we are predicting that the minimum value of ice cover in September 2008 is going to be somewhat near that of last September if not lower than that."

The CFL project was launched just at the end of the dramatic meltdown – in October 2007 – and has been tracking the ice in the Arctic since then. The icebreaker, CCGS Amundsen, being used for data collection for the project had to change its path as it could not find suitable locations for holding ice camps for scientific studies.

When the icebreaker entered into floating ice on the Northern side Banks Islands in November last, scientists found the multi-year ice to be highly decayed. Thaw holes were common and the average thickness of the ice was only about 2.8 meters. The ice was thinner than in previous years due to the late formation of sea ice in the Southern Beaufort Sea and Amundsen Gulf. The open strips of water resulting from early melting absorb more energy from the sun and become warm. This large heat storage drew cyclones over the open waters of the Amundsen Gulf in the fall of 2007. These cyclones, in turn, kept the ocean surface rough resulting in delayed onset of freeze-up.

Another sign of vanishing ice was that the ice bridge which forms every year connecting Cape Perry to Cape Lambton never got formed this year. Also, the multi-year ice was much more mobile compared to previous years, as per information beamed back by 24 GPS-fitted ice beacons released as part of the project.

Rising temperature is clearly one of the main reasons for thin ice and its faster melt down. "The global average temperature has gone up by 0.7 degrees. This increase gets amplified in the polar region because of the relationship between sea ice, the ocean and the radiation feedback system. It is getting warmer here faster than the rest of the planet. If the global average temperature rise is 1 degree, the rise in the polar regions would be 3.5 degrees," pointed out Barber.

Reduction in sea ice thickness and extent is being witnessed in the Norwegian Arctic region as well. Dr Haakon Hop, research scientist at the Norwegian Polar Institute said, "We have seen some drastic changes in the ice cover in the marginal ice zones in North and West of Svalbard in the Arctic where we work. The last three winters have been ice-free in the Kongsfjorden…. There is data to show that 50 to 70 percent ice in the Arctic ocean is first year ice, which would be all gone by the end the summer. So there might be very drastic changes happening right now."

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Celebrating summer solstice in the Arctic Circle

Sorry for the late posting....

It was a great feeling to have witnessed the summer solstice in the Northern hemisphere at Inuvik on June 21. It also happened to be the National Aboriginal Day in Canada. A mid night run was organised in Inuvik to mark the occasion. During the day, a mid-day rally of aboriginals marked the occasion. I shot the proverbial midnight sun on the night of June 20, hours after landing at Inuvik after a rather bumpy flight in the chartered twin otter from Cape Parry.

June 21 marks the beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and simultaneously heralds the beginning of winter in the southern hemisphere.The earth spins around its axis, an imaginary line going right through the planet between the north and south poles. The axis is tilted somewhat off the plane of the earth's revolution around the sun. The tilt of the axis is 23.5 degrees; thanks to this tilt, we enjoy the four seasons. For several months of the year, one half of the earth receives more direct rays of the sun than the other half.

When the axis tilts towards the sun, as it does between June and September, it is summer in the northern hemisphere but winter in the southern hemisphere. Alternatively, when the axis points away from the sun from December to March, the southern hemisphere enjoys the direct rays of the sun during their summer months.
June 21 is called the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and simultaneously the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. [from:]

Friday, June 20, 2008

Preparing to leave...

It's time to leave Amundsen now. Will be boarding a Coast Guard helicopter shortly along with chief scientist Dave Barber, who is also returning to his base at the University of Manitoba.

It has been a wonderful 10-days on the ship and had a tons of experiences, will keep sharing them in future...

More from Inuvik

Thursday, June 19, 2008