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Back to the Arctic - Students on Ice 2011 Arctic Expedition

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26 Jul 2011
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It seems odd to be writing about the Arctic while listening to the sound of chainsaws. I live in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Like the rest of the country, and most of the North American continent, we are having strange weather this year. Spring was late in coming and wet and farmers lamented the loss of production due to flooded fields and lack of sunshine in the spring. Now the predicted heat wave has arrived with record-breaking temperatures all across the continent. Except for the west coast where it’s wet and cool.

In our part of the world, the wide flat Ottawa Valley, we are seeing sudden, violent wind storms called “microbursts”. They look a lot like mini-tornadoes – something we don’t usually get around here – and while not as destructive they do their share of damage. A couple of weeks ago, one of these storms tore up trees all over my neighbourhood. Our houses are very close together in this urban landscape and the trees are very old and large. A 100-year-old maple landed on our neighbour’s and our roof. It took three days to take down and clear out the debris and they are still working with chainsaws on the remains, thick ghostly stumps rising 10 metres into the brilliant blue sky. A hot sun now shines through where once there was green, cooling shade.

Last week, a microburst with winds up to 100 km/h landed on top of the stage at Bluesfest, one of this city’s many summer outdoor festivals. As organizers cleared the Cheap Trick, a venerable band from the 1970s, off the stage, the structure collapsed. Witnesses said it folded in on itself “in the blink of an eye”. People ran for the exits as the black skies opened up. Thousands took shelter in the nearby Canadian War Museum. Miraculously, no one was killed and the three people injured were released from hospital the next day.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that our climate is becoming more volatile. We are used to heat waves and cold spells but the violent storms, the year’s worth of rain in a single month, that’s something new. One of the main findings of the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report is that the global climate is becoming increasingly unstable. Nowhere is this more the case than in the Arctic.

For the last several years, the Arctic has been front and centre in the climate change picture. There evidence is overwhelming that anthropogenic releases of co2 are the cause. One of the most worrying recent findings is the rate of change in the Greenland Ice Cap.

I’m about to leave for Iceland to join this year’s Students on Ice Arctic Expedition. [www.studentsonice.com/arctic2011] Next week we sail from Husavik, on the north coast of Iceland, across the Greenland Sea to the south coast of that massive island. Seventy-five students from around the world, including about 30 from the Arctic region itself, will be on the voyage. One of the main purposes is to experience the Arctic first hand. The education team includes scientists, artists, musicians and Inuit elders who will share their knowledge and experience.

I’m wondering what those Greenlandic fjords will tell us about the changes taking place on our planet. I wonder how much more work the chainsaw crews will have done by the time I return.

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