The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet - Heidi Cullen (2010)
Part II. The Weather of the Future
Chapter 9. The Arctic, Part Two: Greenland
Erik the Red may have deserved to go to hell, but instead he went to Greenland. In a.d. 982, after being banished from Norway and then Iceland for murder, the infamous Viking explorer headed west. Only 500 miles from the shores of Iceland, he discovered a beautiful island with rich pastureland tucked into deep fjords overflowing with crystal blue water. When his term of banishment expired three years later, he returned to Iceland, in the hope of finding a few brave souls willing to join him and settle this little slice of heaven he had discovered. Erik the Red christened his new home Greenland.
It has been suggested that the naming of Greenland is a very early example of bait-and-switch advertising—a deceitful way to get warm bodies to a cold place. The right name may be all it takes to sell people on a dream of a better life and a brighter future. On the other hand, although Erik the Red seems to have been a murderer, he wasn’t necessarily a liar. You might say that in naming Greenland, he told a white lie. At the time, Greenland was actually much greener than it is today. From about a.d. 800 to 1300, the Medieval Warm Period, Greenland’s climate was much milder, and the southern part of Greenland, where Erik the Red settled, did indeed have meadows lush with grass, willows, and wild berries.
In any case, Erik the Red must have been a good pitchman, because in 985 he led a fleet of twenty-five Viking longships to settle two new colonies on Greenland. During the next ten years, as the news of free pastureland traveled back to Iceland, three more ships carrying hopeful settlers set sail for Greenland. And by the year 1000, virtually all the land suitable for farms in the Western and Eastern settlements of Greenland had been claimed. About 1,000 people lived at the Western Settlement and 4,000 people at the Eastern Settlement, which, despite its name, was located about 300 miles to the south.1 Erik the Red had successfully converted 5,000 Icelanders into Greenlanders, but he certainly hadn’t led them to the promised land.
Over time, Erik the Red’s original white lie grew whiter. Summers were becoming shorter and cooler, and winters were downright frigid—even by Viking standards, which were quite harsh. This limited the amount of time the cattle, sheep, goats, and horses could be kept outside to pasture and increased the need for winter fodder. As the temperature dropped, the amount of sea ice increased. The sea ice became a frozen barrier, making it more and more difficult for ships to pass. As a result, trade and communication with Europe and Scandinavia were choked off and Greenland became increasingly isolated.
The cooler climate also brought the Inuit down from the north and into more regular contact with the Norse colony. Their relationship might have served as an impetus for change, pushing the Viking settlers to find new ways to deal with the cold; but in fact it only brought more problems. The little archaeological evidence that exists suggests that there was violence between the two groups. The changing climate had ushered in a period now known as the Little Ice Age. And after 500 years of settlement, the Viking colony, unable to adapt to the cooler conditions and unwilling to supplement Scandinavian tradition with Inuit coping strategies, eventually collapsed. The last written record of the Norse Greenlanders comes from a marriage in the church of Hvalsey in 1408. The church still stands today.
In May 1721, Hans Egede, a thirty-five-year-old Lutheran missionary, received permission from Frederick IV of Denmark to search for Erik the Red’s lost colony. No word had come out of Greenland for more than 300 years, and Egede feared that the Viking colony was lost or, perhaps worse, that the colonists had lost their faith. And so Egede and his wife set sail from Bergen, Norway, and headed for Greenland, where they intended to set up a mission. Upon their arrival, Egede found no Norse survivors. He did, however, find the Inuit. And so he started his mission among them.
Egede, called the apostle of the Eskimos, spent fifteen years in Greenland. He studied the Inuit language and tried his hand at translating Christian texts, a task that required the ability to adapt the text in such a way that his teachings would resonate with the Inuit experience. For instance, the Inuit did not eat bread—a fact that made the Lord’s Prayer rather cryptic. Egede made one small but critical adjustment and wrote, “Give us this day our daily harbor seal.” It seems that Egede decided to leave the concept of hell unaltered, despite the cold climate. The Inuit learned about a very hot place where sinners were sent for eternity.
Today, new settlers are traveling to Greenland in search of the promised land. But they come in corporate jets rather than Viking longships, and this time the Inuit are happy to see them. Greenland figuratively and (as I will explain later) literally is on the rise.
Gold and diamond prospectors are heading to the southern part of Greenland. Alcoa, the U.S. aluminum giant, is preparing to build a smelter powered by hydroelectric energy in Maniitsoq, on Greenland’s west coast. In addition to precious metals and diamonds, Greenland also has oil and natural gas. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) recently assessed the area north of the Arctic Circle and concluded that about 30 percent of the world’s undiscovered gas and 13 percent of the undiscovered oil may be found there, mostly offshore and under less than 550 yards of water.2 The USGS estimates that the Arctic could hold 90 billion barrels of oil and 1,670 trillion cubic feet of gas, much of it off Greenland. East Greenland alone is estimated to contain 8.9 billion barrels of oil. Exxon Mobil and Chevron are already increasing their exploration. But there’s a catch.
Greenland is hidden under a 1.6-mile-thick layer of ice known as the Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS). And with more than 80 percent of the island essentially on ice, much of Greenland’s potential wealth is more or less wishful thinking. Greenland may not be the promised land quite yet, but it is a land full of promises.
A Danish protectorate since 1721, Greenland has long sought to sever ties with its benevolent colonizer, a colonizer that supports the island with an annual grant of $600 million. On June 21, 2009, Greenland came one step closer to eventual independence from Denmark by voting in a new era of self-governance. Under the new self-government agreement, Greenland will keep half of all proceeds from oil and mineral finds. At first it will also continue to receive the $600 million annual grant from Denmark, but as petroleum and mineral revenues increase, the grant will be reduced—and it will continue to be reduced until it hits zero. Greenland can choose to secede from Denmark anytime along the way. As the ice melts, the money will rush in—or so the thinking goes.
If a changing climate helps speed that process up, then many Greenlanders say bring it on. For the people of Greenland, 90 percent of whom are indigenous Inuit, the question of how quickly Greenland’s ice will melt is not merely an abstraction; it represents freedom. However, there’s another catch. If the GIS melted, exposing all the riches beneath it, it would also raise sea level worldwide by 23 feet.3 This is why the loss of the GIS represents one of the worst-case scenarios with regard to global warming.
There is a rather straightforward accounting system as it applies to global warming in Greenland. There are pros and cons, pluses and minuses, gains and losses. The larger question is: how will these add up? Warmer winters are already making life tough for traditional communities that hunt and rely on predictable sea ice (see Chapter 8). Hunters who use the sea ice for hunting and travel have found themselves idle when the ice fails to form and the whales, seals, and birds they hunt shift their migratory routes. Melting permafrost is buckling roads and airport runways, raising costs for the mining companies that are seeking aluminum, diamonds, gold, zinc, and more. But the warmer weather also encourages tourism, and the loss of ice means that the ship transport season in the Arctic is easier and longer. Fishermen report a rise in some fish stocks, including cod and halibut, as a result of the warm-water currents that now flood into Disko Bay. Shops in the island’s capital, Nuuk, have even begun to offer homegrown potatoes and broccoli—crops you don’t necessarily associate with Greenland. Whether you think in terms of dollars, temperature, glaciers, or even broccoli, there are plenty of people who like what they see.4 Ultimately, though, the issue comes back to the ice. And you can argue that whatever factors control the amount of ice control Greenland’s destiny. That is where the scientists come in.
Scientists have been trying to understand Greenland’s ice for a long time. There is no doubt that Greenland fluctuates between warmer and cooler, wetter and drier, greener and whiter. Hans Egede Saabye—who was the grandson of Hans Egede and was also a missionary—first noticed this.5 Saabye evidently had a keen eye for changes in weather and climate. He was an observationalist in the classic sense of the word, collecting data and monitoring change. Saabye wrote down these observations in his diary, and one of his comments was particularly perceptive: “In Greenland, all winters are severe, yet they are not alike… . When the winter in Denmark was severe, as we perceive it, the winter in Greenland in its manner was mild, and conversely.” Scientists now understand that Saabye was describing an important atmospheric pattern called the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO).
The NAO is a phenomenon that affects weather and climate from North America to Siberia and from the Arctic to the equator.6 It is a dominant mode of natural climate variability; and as with El Niño, scientists are working to develop a long-range seasonal forecast for it. The main feature of the NAO is a seesaw of atmospheric pressure between a persistent high-pressure cell over the Azores and an equally persistent low-pressure cell over Iceland. The NAO index, which swings between positive and negative, represents a measure of the relative strength of these two pressure systems. Depending on the phase, the NAO can bring large changes in surface air temperature, winds, storminess, and precipitation.7 The NAO is most pronounced during the winter, and that is why the connection to the ice exists. In the case of Greenland, it appears that snow falling in the center of the island is linked to a negative NAO index.8 But the NAO is just one of many factors affecting Greenland’s ice; that is why ice sheets are a very complicated matter.
When scientists talk about the GIS, they are talking about mass balance. This concept implies that the amount of snow falling in the middle of Greenland is balanced by the amount melting along the sides. During the early 1990s, the GIS was in the Zen-like state of mass balance.9 Today, scientists are talking about mass loss because all signs point to the fact that the GIS is melting much faster than it’s growing.10Mass loss is caused by a combination of two factors. There is melt, which can result from an increase in temperature and is caused by a variety of factors. There is also a process called calving. Calving, a much slower process than melting, takes place when glaciers flow into the sea and eventually break away from the coast. A recent study conducted with the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (IceSat)—a NASA satellite that uses lasers to calculate change in elevation—found that the glaciers are indeed speeding up where they flow into the sea.11 Scientists think that the most likely cause of faster glacier flow is warm ocean currents reaching the coast and melting the glacier front.12 But calving is so poorly understood that it remains one of the most unpredictable components of future rises in the sea level.
Since 2002, Greenland has come under the watchful eye of another NASA satellite mission: the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, which some scientists call amazing GRACE. This mission doesn’t see continents or oceans so much as it sees gravity. Since its launch in 2002, GRACE has been acquiring ultraprecise measurements of Greenland’s mass loss. Scott Luthcke, a geophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, describes GRACE like this. “Imagine you caught a big fish and you wanted to weigh it. One way you could do it is you could go out and buy a scale. But you could also just use a spring,” Luthcke begins. “The distance that the spring stretches when you hang the fish from it is a representation of how much the fish weighs. That’s pretty much what GRACE is doing.” Of course, GRACE, which is able to measure changes as small as the width of a human hair, is doing it (as noted above) with high precision, using microwaves that essentially act as the spring to measure the mass of the fish—the GIS. Technically, GRACE, two identical satellites separated by a distance of 137 miles, is doing it from a polar orbit 310 miles above the Earth’s surface.
The beauty, or perhaps the amazing part, of GRACE is that every month since 2003 it has flown over the GIS, keeping track of its comings and goings, its growing and melting. When you fly over the same place again and again, you can measure how much it’s pulled apart and compressed together and how much the mass on the ground has changed. Unfortunately, in the case of the GIS, the fish is slowly disappearing.
Luthcke is an observationalist in the purest sense. He just happens to be working with some of the most sophisticated measuring devices ever built. Data from GRACE shows that Greenland lost about 200 billion tons of water per year from July 2003 to July 2008. That works out to the equivalent of Lake Erie draining into the ocean every two years. Needless to say Greenland is losing weight.
This enormous weight loss is a result of melting and thinning at the margins along Greenland’s coast13 as well as a surging (or acceleration) of outlet glaciers into the sea.14 One example of an outlet glacier is the Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier.15 Jakobshavn Isbrae is Greenland’s largest outlet glacier, draining about 6.5 percent of the GIS area. It has been surveyed repeatedly since 1991 and has been accelerating since the mid-1990s. That said, this tremendous crumbling and melting along Greenland’s coastal margins is partly compensated for by some mass gain in the interior of the island, a gain that is controlled in part by the North Atlantic Oscillation.16 Even so, the GIS has shrunk so much in recent years that the underlying bedrock, like a ship emptying of its cargo, is lurching up at a rate of about 1.6 inches each year. Greenland is indeed rising.
J. P. Steffensen, a scientist at the Center for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, agrees that an amount of meltwater equivalent to Lake Erie every two years is pretty impressive, but it’s virtually nothing compared with what he’s seen happen in his ice cores. “We’ve seen climate changes that would have wiped off life, changes that are just mind-boggling fast,” says Steffensen. “We literally see the ice age ending from one year to the next,” Steffensen says. “It’s pretty scary.”
Steffensen reads ice the way most of us read a book. And there is one chapter that worries him. “The Earth has always had climate changes. The problem is that right now we have a climate change which is permanent,” he explains. “Even though nature has done it by itself before, we should not put ourselves into the position of kicking the climate system. That’s my little worry.”
Steffensen is the field operation manager for the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling Project (NEEM). The NEEM camp, located in the far north of Greenland (see map), brings together scientists from fourteen nations including the United States and is aimed at retrieving a core of solid ice 1.6 miles long. The goal is to unlock the climate history trapped inside tiny air bubbles from the ancient atmosphere. You could say Steffensen is old school. He prefers data to models, hardware to software, and ice cores to satellites. “There’s a much-admired saying in our community,” Steffensen says with a smile: “There’s no substitute for data.” That is where the ice cores come in. “I mean, when you do climate models, you have to realize that the models do not include the things you don’t know. With ice core data, we can see things happening in the climate system that the models so far have never been able to capture. We reveal the climate history,” Steffensen says.
He gives an example of two rapid warming periods he sees in the ice that constitute a profound climate shift: one at 14,700 and one at 11,700 years ago.17 It’s thought that the shift must have come from the atmosphere, which is far more nimble than the slowly churning oceans. If the atmosphere is capable of suddenly flipping into a new pattern, then this new pattern could have contributed to the rapid warming of the entire northern hemisphere.18 Taken together, these two pulses of rapid warmth pushed the Earth’s climate out of the last ice age and into the Holocene, our current warm period. The part that scares Steffensen is that during the ice age, the Earth’s climate was far more unstable than it has been of late. The Holocene, in addition to being warm, is known for its rather remarkable stability. In this regard, observations of the real-world climate system and simulations from climate models have yet to overlap.
Although climate models help scientists better understand the complex mechanisms that create rapid climate shifts, the models can’t seem to actually make such shifts happen. Typically, when a climate model tries to simulate the abrupt natural climatic shifts of the distant past, those shifts end up taking more than 100 years to occur—which is hardly abrupt.19 This suggests that some aspects of the physics still need to be worked out. And Steffensen is hoping that data from the NEEM ice core can be of some use. This specific ice core will allow scientists to see the climate of Greenland over the past 130,000 years, and isolate a fascinating but poorly documented interglacial period known as the Eemian. During the Eemian, Greenland’s temperature was about 5°F to 9°F warmer than it is today, so this period is a meaningful analogue for future climate.20 Global sea level rise during the Eemian is also a matter of great interest, as it’s likely that the sea level was between 13 and 20 feet higher. Steffensen and his colleagues at NEEM are looking at the Eemian to learn how quickly the ice covering Greenland might melt when the climate is that much warmer.
The NEEM project officially began in 2007, when Steffensen and some colleagues dragged equipment from the previous drill site—a camp called NGRIP—over to the NEEM drill site. Steffensen has carefully selected this new drill site on the basis of radar profiling of the internal ice layers and the bedrock topography. If an ice core really is like a book, then in this case the book is War and Peace, and of the 1.6 miles of ice each chapter or year of climate history during the Eemian is about one-third inch long. Ice cores, like tree rings, allow you to reconstruct climate on an annual basis. With each passing year, snow falling on central Greenland lays down a distinct layer, trapping bubbles of atmospheric gas, dust, and other impurities and gradually compacting into ice that captures an ancient climate record stretching back hundreds of thousands of years.
“Ice cores serve as a remarkable archive of past climate and atmosphere because of the bubbles of air that are trapped in the ice,” explains Jeff Severinghaus, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. “And the beautiful thing about an ice core is that it has all of these different indicators: atmosphere composition, temperature, mean ocean temperature, dust.” The oldest ice cores now go back about 800,000 years, and scientists are optimistic about pushing this method back even farther. Many of the scientists are involved in International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences, which is aiming to retrieve a 1.5-million-year-old ice core. “And what’s so remarkable is that you can still answer questions down to the year,” says Severinghaus. “It’s really like pulling back the veil.”
What worries many scientists is that behind the veil they might find a threshold or a tipping point past which the GIS becomes perpetually out of balance, unstable, locked in a persistent state of wasting away.21Right now, the temperature range assigned to that tipping point is large because there is a high degree of uncertainty. The IPCC puts the temperature increase at somewhere between 3°F and 8°F above the long-term average. Given the 1.3°F of warming we’ve already put into the system, it’s a temperature range that could easily be in the cards during this century.
A fundamental problem is that existing models of ice sheets are unable to explain the speed of the recent changes in the GIS that GRACE and IceSat are observing. In other words, the models cannot reproduce the data. Scientists such as Scott Luthcke are seeing things happen in Greenland right now that, technically, the models don’t show as happening for another thirty years.22 Even if some temperature threshold is passed, the IPCC gives a 1,000-year timescale for a total collapse of the GIS. But, given the inability of current models to simulate the rapid disappearance of continental ice right now, let alone at the end of the last ice age, a lower limit of 300 years is conceivable.23
I met up with Steffensen, Severinghaus, and other scientists from the NEEM project in Kangerlussuaq, a former Cold War outpost for the U.S. Army and now the site of Greenland’s major international airport. Steffensen, who is Danish, has spent much of his life studying Greenland’s ice. “I totaled it up,” he says, taking a puff on his pipe. “I’m fifty-two years old now and I’ve been to Greenland twenty-three times. That works out to spending almost six years on the ice. I guess you could say the ice went straight into my belly and it stayed there.”
Kangerlussuaq also serves as the staging ground for the NEEM scientists who are flying north to the ice camp. This time Steffensen will stay behind to manage the logistics and make sure the ice cores get safely onto the bright red Greenland Airlines jets bound for Copenhagen. But he is no stranger to life in a remote field camp. His first season on the ice was in 1980. “It was a marriage for life,” he says solemnly. That statement turns out be more true than I realized. Steffensen’s wife is a fellow scientist, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, also a professor at the University of Copenhagen and the project leader at the NEEM drill site. She shares with Steffensen the difficult task of coordinating the drill teams and the scientists, as well as making sure the ice cores get safely from the drill camp to laboratories around the world. “But my main interest is really the ice,” she says. “So, I normally find the time every day to go down into the science trench and work with the core samples, because that’s really my heart,” she says with a shy smile.
If the NEEM project is successful, it will be the first complete record of the Eemian. None of the former deep ice cores from Greenland contain complete and undisturbed layers from this warm period, because the layers had either melted or been disturbed by ice flow close to the bedrock. “The last several ice cores in Greenland tried to get this interglacial period but didn’t quite succeed,” explains Jeff Severinghaus. “NEEM is really trying to get a record of the last time that the Earth was warmer than today,” he explains. “So the Eemian is really an analogue of what our future looks like under global warming. It’s a very, very realistic scenario for what we may experience in the next 100 to 200 years.”
“We know that even though it was warmer in Greenland, it wasn’t warm enough for the whole Greenland Ice Sheet to disintegrate,” explains Dahl-Jensen. “And that’s something that is pretty hotly debated.” Specifically, this is the question of the tipping point, or how much warming we would need in the future before the GIS would totally disappear. Scientists already know that shrinkage of the GIS during the Eemian contributed an estimated 6 to 10 feet to the global rise in sea level, although a widespread ice cap still remained over portions of Greenland.24 “Our earlier results tell us that during the Eemian, the Greenland Ice Sheet was about 30 percent smaller. And that tells us that roughly 3 to 7 feet of global sea level rise came from the Greenland Ice Sheet alone,” Dahl-Jensen says. “We can also see that when the climate is warmer, it is also very stable. And that’s another big debate. If we aggressively warm the climate, will it shift back into an unstable regime?”
If the weight of 130,000 years of climate history isn’t enough pressure on these delicate layers of ice, the hopes of the climate science community are also bearing down. “I feel a sense of awe when I am able to peer into the deep, deep past time,” explains Severinghaus. “It’s very hard to put into words, but it’s really quite a sense of excitement and wonder and mystery.” And perhaps just a touch of dread.
The NEEM field camp accommodates about thirty researchers and technicians from May to August. “It’s kind of like a frontier outpost up here,” says Vasilii Petrenko, a scientist at the University of Colorado. “It’s a very simple life. We’re working for about fifteen hours a day most days. But we take breaks. We come back for lunch; we come back to warm up sometimes, get some tea and cookies. And everybody gathers in camp for dinner.” The food at NEEM gets universal raves. “I can honestly say that I eat better here than I do at home. It’s a very calorie-rich diet, but you need it here. Once you’ve spent a couple of days in the science trench, your body starts adjusting to the cold, and producing more heat, so our calorie requirements just skyrocket. I probably eat twice as much here as I do normally at home.”
The field camp may look like a frontier outpost on the surface, but the scientists are engaged in some very sophisticated climate research in the underground science trench dug from the snow 30 feet below the surface where the ice core drilling and initial processing is done.
Developing a climate history involves reading many types of measurements from the wide variety of particles that get trapped. Oxygen isotopes are a proxy for local temperature; excess deuterium is a proxy for ocean surface temperature; dust and calcium originate from low-latitude Asian deserts; sodium indicates marine sea salt. Impurities in the ice reflect the impurity load of the atmosphere of the past, and gas bubbles trapped between the snow crystals contain samples of the actual atmosphere, reflecting the amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. The crystal structure of ice and the content of biological material also provide information about past climatic conditions. Volcanic eruptions can be used to date the ice. A peak of volcanic dust in the ice core allows you to match it to a volcanic eruption and have an independent estimate of age.
“All of these kinds of different indicators are on exactly the same timescale, so you can really make detailed comparisons between one indicator and another,” explains Severinghaus. “Carbon dioxide is a strong greenhouse gas. So, one of the things that we see in the ice cores is a strong correlation between carbon dioxide levels and temperatures. So at times of warm temperatures, carbon dioxide is high; at times of cold temperatures, carbon dioxide is low—which reinforces what science has been showing recently: that carbon dioxide does cause warming. During the Eemian, carbon dioxide was definitely lower than today, a lot lower than today,” says Petrenko.
“It suggests that today’s carbon dioxide levels are entering the danger zone, basically. The Earth hasn’t seen these levels of CO2 for millions of years, which means that we are headed for a climate that is beyond anything that the ice cores can show,” Petrenko continues. With regard to the future and the still unwritten chapters of climate history, past data can take you only so far. “The Earth is not a system that you should do experiments on,” says Severinghaus. “Better to look at the experiments that Mother Nature did on her own, in the past, and study the results of those experiments. That’s why looking at ice cores is incredibly valuable,” he adds.
Back in Kangerlussuaq, I meet up with Steffensen before the long flight home. He reflects on the work of the NEEM researchers and on the looming issue of climate change. “We have to get used to this word change,” he says. “That’s why we have a past, why we have a future—time is flowing forward. We should never strive to re-create the past. That’s impossible, because nothing will ever be as it has been. So my point is we should look forward with hope. But,” he adds after a moment, “we should never forget that nature can also turn dreadful.” Just ask Erik the Red.
The Arctic: The Forty-Year Forecast—Ice Melt, Mineral Resources, and a Hospitable Arctic Circle
Forecast June 2011
The northern coastline of Alaska was changing. Midway between Point Barrow and Prudhoe Bay, a stretch of coastal cliffs as long as a football field was being devoured by the ocean every three years. As bigger and bigger waves pounded away at the shoreline and warm seawater chipped away at their base, the 12-foot-high bluffs lining Prudhoe Bay toppled into the Beaufort Sea—more than 30 feet disappeared every year.25 Up here, climate change was a triple threat, involving warmer oceans, stronger waves, and shrinking sea ice.
Arctic sea ice was now declining at a rate of almost 12 percent per decade. And to make matters worse, less than 20 percent of the ice cover was more than two years old—the lowest amount ever recorded since satellite measurements began. The young ice, so thin and fragile, didn’t stand a chance.
Despite the dramatic changes taking place across the Arctic, it wasn’t the satellite data or the retreat of sea ice that transformed many skeptics into believers. It was the Russians. When the Russians planted a titanium flag at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, in order to lay claim to the possibly vast oil and mineral deposits, many skeptics took notice. Still, it was unclear how best to think about what was happening in the Arctic. Was this like the race to the moon—a matter of national pride requiring us to beat the Russians, or anyone else? Or was the Arctic a modern-day version of the Wild West?
In any event, there were enough old-fashioned border disputes to keep everyone busy. There was a border dispute between Canada and the United States over the legal status of the Northwest Passage; there was a dispute between Greenland and Denmark over economic and political independence; and there was a dispute among all Arctic nations over access to mineral rights. These are not things you bother to fight about unless you are fundamentally convinced that the ice will be gone someday. And yet, ironically, countries that had originally denied climate change were now scrambling over resources that would be valuable only if the climate models proved to be correct. This was proof that even sophisticated countries were still better at grasping short-term opportunities than responding rationally to long-term threats. There is nothing like a good old-fashioned gold rush to turn people into believers.
In 1946, the U.S. government was so impressed with the strategic potential of Greenland—the world’s largest island—that it secretly attempted to buy this island from Denmark for $100 million. By 2011, the United States was wishing it had offered a lot more. The money to be made from aluminum production alone was enough to make your head spin. Alcoa had dammed up two rivers in West Greenland and built one of the world’s largest aluminum smelters—mining about 340,000 tons a year. But Alcoa had to share its profits. Part of the deal was that the Home Rule Government of Greenland and Alcoa jointly owned the hydro power stations, the transmission lines, and the smelter plant. The people of Greenland knew a good opportunity when they saw it. And for them, climate change was a path to freedom. There was money to be made in the new Greenland. It was just a question of who was going to make it.
As the sea ice continued to melt, the disputes between Canada and the United States over control of the Northwest Passage increased. Canada maintained that the passage lay inside its territorial waters allowing it to exercise control over all ship traffic; the United States wanted the passage to be classified as an international sea-lane, outside any one nation’s jurisdiction. Despite the controversy, the Canadian government staked its claim to the Arctic waters. It constructed new naval bases in the area and ordered a new fleet of Arctic patrol boats. It also established underwater listening posts for submarines and ships. In the end, Asia, Europe, Russia, and the United States refused to budge and the Northwest and Northeast passages were deemed international waters. Canada was, however, able to collect a small fee—about one-fifth of the $4 billion generated annually by the Suez Canal—for maintenance.
The retreating sea ice also opened a potential for deepwater drilling for oil and gas deposits. The Russians were holding tight to their claim that a large portion of the Arctic was their geological territory. But the gold rush philosophy of the “Wild North” could more accurately be described as “First come, first served.”
As claims were staked and deals were made, fishermen a little farther south went in search of missing cod. The North Sea—the turbulent pocket of ocean bordered by the United Kingdom and Scandinavia (among others)—had always been a very fertile fishing ground. A little more than a century ago it yielded almost 20 percent of the world’s fish harvest.
But by 2022, the North Sea was, on average, 3°F warmer than it had been fifty years before. The warmer temperature had chased away all the plankton that young cod eat in the spring. Just as the fishermen were searching for the cod, the cod were searching for the plankton. And the plankton were looking for cooler water.26 In this new world, everybody was looking for something.
Because of climate change, nothing was where it was supposed to be, so international fishery management was a bit of a mess. In the meantime, the fish-and-chip shops in England were buying their cod from trawlers sailing the coasts of Iceland. The fishermen were trying to scrape by on shrimp and whelks (large marine snails). And the jellyfish had decided that the North Sea felt just right.
The telltale signs of a shifting climate were quite obvious in other ways, too. Across the lands of the Inuit, the formerly pale brown, treeless landscape had begun to turn dark green; spruce, larch, and fir trees were popping up from Sachs Harbor to Clyde River to Iqaluit. But the warmer temperatures meant serious trouble for any species that relied on the ice. Hunting had become increasingly difficult as the delicate food web continued to unravel. Seals and walrus depended on cod, the cod depended on crustaceans, the crustaceans depended on algae, and the algae depended on the ice to provide a home. In essence, the hunt for seals and walrus had become a hunt for ice. The amount of time hunters were able to spend out on the ice had shrunk from months to weeks to days as vast areas of open water made traditional hunting grounds inaccessible. Hunters were often forced to shoot some of their sled dogs because they had no walrus or seal meat to feed them. The “ice highway” the hunters had relied upon for centuries was closing down permanently.
Overall, the ground itself had become more and more unstable as permafrost thawed and gave way. Roads buckled, sewer and waterlines burst, home foundations sagged, and trees tipped over in random directions as if they were drunk. The permafrost was turning into a soggy sponge. There were countless attempts to find clever ways to keep the permafrost frozen, including refrigerated slabs and insulated carpets. But in the end chemistry always won. The heat was unstoppable.
The year 2040 was when climate scientists had collectively predicted the Arctic would be fully ice-free in summer. We all knew this was a conservative estimate. Most sea ice models, despite improvements in the physics and better satellite data, had repeatedly underestimated the speed of Arctic ice melt over the past decade. It was just a question of how much the models were underestimating the melt.
In the end, as natural climate variations such as the North Atlantic Oscillation and the human-induced long-term trend played tug-of-war, the models were off by only eight years. By 2032, summer sea ice in the Arctic had all but disappeared. As they patiently waited for the ice to recede, shipping companies had been carefully planning for the opening of the Northwest and Northeast passages. They reengineered the next generation of Arctic-ready cargo ships and trained crews in how to deal with the cold. When the time finally came, they were ready to take a test drive in the Northwest and Northeast passages.
The trip from Yokohama to New York via the Northwest Passage was 2,200 miles shorter than by the Suez Canal. And the Northeast Passage to Europe via the North Sea would save about 4,200 miles between Yokohama and Rotterdam. From Singapore to Rotterdam, it was about 1,300 miles shorter than going through the very expensive Suez Canal. But despite the focus on miles, the experts were quick to point out that it was time they really wanted to save. They estimated that the Northeast Passage could shave off about seven days of travel time.
But still, a lot of risks came with Arctic shipping routes. The worst was the need for absolutely open water so the ships would be able to maintain speed. If a ship hit even a small chunk of ice at 22 knots, the crew would have to deal with a hefty hole. Needless to say, there were still plenty of small chunks of ice floating around that were difficult to spot, even with the new remote sensing equipment. The first major oil spill occurred just a few weeks after the new routes opened, when an empty container ship heading back to Yokohama from New York collided with a chunk of ice moving in for winter. This was bad news all around; but it was especially bad for the fish, as they had fewer and fewer places to escape to.
The Norwegians had always billed their fish as the “purest fish in the world,” thanks to the clean, cold Arctic waters. Uncontaminated fish were almost impossible to come by, and the Norwegians had been charging a premium. Needless to say, this wasn’t a claim they could make anymore.
The warming had brought cod, herring, halibut, and haddock north in search of food, but it also brought oil and gas tankers and container ships from all over the world. In addition to rice from China and cars from Japan, the ships brought various contaminants and diseases that fouled the Arctic waters. Pollution and disease devastated the fishing stock. The Norwegian defense minister said in a speech at an international meeting in Moscow to discuss how to handle the collapse of the fisheries, “It used to be we had a world with plenty of food but bad distribution. Now we have a world where we have plenty of distribution options, but not enough food.” That pretty much summed up the situation.
Meanwhile the Canadian government was moving full speed ahead with its plans to become the final resting ground for carbon dioxide. Carbon capture and storage facilities were built in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan—which had been identified as offering the right combination of high-volume CO2 emission facilities located close to abundant geologic storage sites.27 The CO2 would be liquefied and then injected into depleted oil and gas reservoirs, or into saline aquifers located more than 1 mile below the surface. The Canadians figured that they could sell space in their reservoirs and aquifers to the Americans as an additional source of income. Oddly, despite all the innovation during the past forty years, no one could figure out how to make CO2 anything other than an expensive nuisance—the climatic equivalent of nuclear waste.
It’s tempting to say that places like Greenland and Nunavut had been living their version of the American dream. The decision to move forward with the aluminum and zinc mines, the shipping, the oil tankers, and the natural gas pipelines turned Nuuk and Iqaluit—the capitals of Greenland and Nunavut, respectively—into fashionable international cities complete with four-star hotels and fine restaurants. But the boom had begun to show signs of busting—or perhaps more accurately, the boom was melting. Infrastructure costs to combat crumbling roads and sagging buildings were out of control. The permafrost was neither permanent nor frozen. And methane had begun to burst out at the Arctic’s seams.
Methane hydrates, essentially natural gas trapped in ice crystals,28 had become the next big thing in the Arctic, drawing investors from Dubai, Russia, the United States, and elsewhere. Imagine a snowball on fire and you’ve got a decent picture of what a methane hydrate looks like. Exploration for methane hydrates during the 2010s and 2020s had given way to large-scale production of natural gas during the 2030s. That was when the money really started to pour in. It was estimated that more energy was locked up in methane hydrates than in all other known fossil fuels combined. That was all most investors needed to hear.
The “Wild North” was now also dubbed “Saudi North.” Hydrate deposits more than a half mile thick were found scattered under permafrost all over the Arctic, including the North Slope of Alaska, the Mackenzie River delta of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and the Messoyakha gas field of western Siberia. Exploration also yielded several productive sites beneath the ocean floor at water depths greater than about 1,600 feet.
But as with everything else, the situation wasn’t that simple. Methane brought tremendous wealth to the Arctic, but it also brought trouble. As temperatures continued to warm, methane hydrates, both in Arctic permafrost and beneath the oceans at continental margins, destabilized.29 In other words, methane—a greenhouse gas with twenty-three times the heat-trapping capacity of CO2, began pouring out of the Arctic. As the permafrost melted, the methane destabilization acted as a runaway feedback and further increased global warming. There was evidence that something like this had happened in the past, 635 million years ago, when unzippering the methane reservoir had warmed the Earth dramatically.30
Researchers had long warned that methane might be the final trigger setting off a climate change time bomb. New calculations showed that the levels of methane emissions from northern wetlands were going up year after year. And the potential for further warming was upward of several degrees—a scenario that frightened even the most stubborn skeptics.31 In the end, many of us came to think that this new Arctic might after all have more in common with the barren lunar landscape.