Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Climate Change in the North

Perhaps you’ve seen An Inconvenient Truth. I did, and I applaud the recent nomination of Al Gore for the Nobel Peace Prize. He truly has, as Norwegian environmental minister Börge Brende said, “som ingen annan satt klimatfrågen på agenden” (like no one else put the question of climate on the agenda).

The images from his movie---refugees fleeing flooded metropolises, massive droughts, and other cataclysms--are frightening and unforgettable. Now, thanks to the report recently issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, rationality and science are making even stronger headway.

The official report isn’t as tough to wade through as I had anticipated. With my interest in the North, I slogged through the chapter on Europe trying to get an idea of the ramifications of global climate change for Scandinavia.

Northern areas will be subject to more precipitation in the winter, when saturated soils are less able to absorb the extra moisture, setting up conditions for increased flooding. On the flipside, warmer and drier summers with increased evaporation could lead to greater concentrations of harmful nutrients (especially nitrogen and phosphorus) in the water. Longer summers will leave forests vulnerable to damage from insects and fungi that are new to northern regions, and stressed, dying, and drying vegetation could be susceptible to forest fires. Because of the warmer weather, all crops, annual or perennial (such as grapes and other fruit, for example), will be more susceptible to disease outbreaks.

Rising sea levels (7-23 inches by 2100 even if the polar ice remains largely intact) will cause disruption of human settlement and activities, and also will inundate and displace wetlands (disrupting breeding and nursery activity of fish, among other outcomes) and lowlands (including many agricultural areas), erode shorelines, exacerbate coastal storm flooding, increase salinity of estuaries, and threaten freshwater aquifers. The report mentions the Baltic, with its low tidal range, as particularly vulnerable, but it’s unclear to me how other factors, including glacial rebound, might mitigate the situation. Perhaps that depends on how quickly waters rise. There will also be (for all parts of the world) an increase in the likelihood of rare and extreme weather events, and the report states that coastal areas around the North Sea will be especially vulnerable to storm surges.

It seems widely accepted now that melting snow and ice (in particular, the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice shelves) will also contribute to the rising seas, bringing levels higher than those allowed in the IPCC report. According to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, Svante Axelsson, the general secretary of Swedish environmental organization Sveriges Naturskyddsföreningen or SNF, counts Göteborg (Gothenburg) among the cities that will be flooded. Many believe that the melting of certain amounts of the Greenland ice could disrupt the Gulf Stream, thrusting the North Atlantic and northern Europe, including Scandinavia, into another Ice Age. This scenario is explored in An Inconvenient Truth.

Although the IPCC report expresses some optimism around the ability of humans, with the help of science, to adapt to changing conditions, statements such as the following indicate just how many variables there are: “A northward change in temperature patterns may not necessarily correspond to a simple shift in latitude of suitable areas for unusual crops because many plants are sensitive to photoperiod and adapted to a combination of temperature and photoperiod ranges. New genotypes therefore might be necessary to meet this new agricultural frontier, provided that the available soils are suitable for the crop.” ( And, regarding fisheries: “a poleward movement of species in response to climate warming is predictable on intuitive grounds. Habitat, food supply, predators, pathogens, and competitors, however, also constrain the distributions of species. Furthermore, there must be a suitable dispersion route, not blocked by land or some property of the water such as temperature, salinity, structure, currents, or oxygen availability. Movement of animals without a natural dispersal path may require human intervention; in the absence of intervention, such movement may take hundreds or thousands of years.” ( I wonder if our politically and ideologically fractured world is up to the challenge of cooperating to implement these types of survival strategies.

If we are in denial, or, on the other hand, overwhelmed, perhaps it is due to difficulty in making our way through the IPCC report, or our tendency to see a movie as entertainment. Or the multitude of other problems that humanity faces. Or perhaps the enormity of the problem makes it too hard to grasp.

To me, the smaller scale changes hit closer to home than the large. When I think back to the beauty of my favorite childhood places, it really hurts me to imagine that they may cease to exist, or become so changed as to be unrecognizable. I remember so clearly the beautiful, marshy land on the Kungsbacka fjord with its distinctive smells, sights, and bird sounds. Will they be inundated by rising waters? What about the red-granite island covered in purple heather where we used to swim—will it become nothing but an underwater danger spot on the navigational chart? And with hotter, drier summers, will the buckets of blueberries we picked as children be reduced to handfuls? Or will the entire area revert to an Ice Age?

I don’t know how many people care about the little things. Judging from the runaway development we experience here in the U.S., perhaps not many. Of course, if your life and culture are close to the land, as is the case with farmers, fishers, hunters, etc., you will be among the first to feel the pain. Ultimately, though, we all will feel it, as will our children, grandchildren, and on down the line.

Are there places that you care about? Places that you remember or places that you enjoy now? Places that you hope your children will be able to enjoy as well? If so, please take a moment to prod your elected officials, if you are lucky enough to have them. Let them know that you want to see some action. Presumably with a problem so large, there are many ways forward, and we should probably walk them all. What about Al Gore for Climate Czar?

"Extended Forecast" by Ricardo Levins Morales. Click on the image for more information.

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