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.