On "WILL WE DECAMP FOR THE NORTHERN RIM?"
By Laurence C. Smith

STEWART BRAND One of the finest short essays I've seen.

I'm eager to hear Smith's perspective on the Northern Rim as a climate driver. As the permafrost melts and the boreal forest marches north, what happens with methane and CO2 emissions? What happens with snow and vegetation albedo? What happens with cloud and precipitation regimes? How are coastal areas different from the vast inlands? ...

ALUN ANDERSON This is a fun essay if you read it backwards. The real conclusion towards the end is that we are talking about a "conversion from land that is hardly livable to land that is somewhat livable" which is perhaps not such a big change.

I don't think that the small change in winter low temperatures as climate warms is the constraint on the development of the Arctic.

The fundamental constraints are the world price of natural resources and the strength of the environmental lobby (outside of Russia). There has been development in the Arctic already, long before the temperature warmed a little bit. It is just very very expensive. ...

LAWRENCE C. SMITH Brand and Anderson's remarks highlight beautifully the strange dichotomy that our northern high latitudes have with the rest of the world. They are remote, marginal, and thinly populated yet also have enormous potential to play with the rest of us. One way, as Anderson describes, is through sharing of their vast resource wealth. It’s an iffy affair that depends crucially on the economics of transport, labor availability, and commodity prices; and often environmental regulation.

The prospect of southern refugees pouring into the Arctic — or even wanting to — is miniscule; time will whether coming decades will see the rapid growth of human activities in the North. But the pressures are there, and climate change is just one of several including demographic, political, and resource-based. Aboriginal people are in a surprisingly good position to advance northern development and with it, themselves. ...



Vintage Books


STEWART BRAND
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (October 15th)

One of the finest short essays I've seen.

I'm eager to hear Smith's perspective on the Northern Rim as a climate driver. As the permafrost melts and the boreal forest marches north, what happens with methane and CO2 emissions? What happens with snow and vegetation albedo? What happens with cloud and precipitation regimes? How are coastal areas different from the vast inlands?

And what does Smith think of ecologist Sergei Zimov's effort to restore the "mammoth tundra steppe" in northeastern Siberia?


ALUN ANDERSON
Senior Consultant (and former Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director of New Scientist); Author, After the Ice: Life, Death and Politics in the New Arctic (November 15th)

This is a fun essay if you read it backwards. The real conclusion towards the end is that we are talking about a "conversion from land that is hardly livable to land that is somewhat livable" which is perhaps not such a big change.

I don't think that the small change in winter low temperatures as climate warms is the constraint on the development of the Arctic.

The fundamental constraints are the world price of natural resources and the strength of the environmental lobby (outside of Russia). There has been  development in the Arctic already, long before the temperature warmed a little bit. It is just very very expensive.

A good way to understand the remoteness of the Arctic is to consider Canada's territory of Nunavut. It is three times the size of California and has a population of 30,000 people. To put that in perspective, imagine if the entire population of the United States was just 150,000, or only 3,000 people lived in the whole of Great Britain. These nations would then have the same population density as Nunavut (might sound like heaven to some). There are no roads, railroads or useful ports in Nunavut. You face distance, cold, no infrastructure and an unbelievably sparse population. Warming undermines hunting and merely lengthens the ice-free season for supply by ship by a small period. That's it.

To take out natural mineral resources from these areas you have to start with high-value-for-weight materials like diamonds and gold which can be flown out. But these mines don't really bring development, just short-lived boom and bust mining towns. When you move onto heavier stuff, like iron ore, that can run for many decades, you have staggering transport investment costs. Mary River in Baffin Island is home to perhaps the biggest deposit of high grade iron ore in the world but to get it out requires a railway across the tundra, a new port and a fleet of ice breaking bulk carriers. The ambitious BaffinLand company is all ready and waiting for a $4.1  billion investment to get going and I hope they succeed. But such big opportunities are rare and few have been taken, like the Red Dog Mine in Alaska and Norilsk in Russia.

Oil and gas are the only large sources of long-term natural resource wealth across the Arctic. In Alaska, offshore development, where the big fields are, has come to a halt in the face of environmental groups concerned about the risks to wildlife and fisheries, already under strain from climate change. Only in Russia is really rapid development under way. That's where the innovation is right now, in the Shtokman field and out around Yamal. Is this really going to change as we face the realities of a warming world? Are we going to say, let's go for lots more high-priced Arctic oil in Alaska? More hydrocarbons please and don't worry about oil spills and polar bears? I doubt it, or if we do, it won't be for long. The race will go to the brilliant innovators who show us how to replace high-priced oil.

Still I very much hope that some development will come to the Arctic, but not any more people. Taking the arc of land from Alaska to Greenland, the Inuit lands, the situation of the indigenous people is very tough. There's a booming population, (60 per cent of the population is under 25 in Nunavut, while in the US, 32 per cent of the population is under 25), high unemployment, staggering suicide rates for young men (it's not the dark cold winters, 80 per cent of suicides are in the 24 hour summer light), and low education levels. They desperately need jobs. One Inuit regional development official put it like this to me: "When Inuit are making a meaningful living, it's a lot better. You see the community being much more vibrant, everybody feels much better about themselves and life is good."

So I'd rather not think of the Arctic as a place southerners might settle but as a place where we southerners might help to bring a life that is good.

LINKS: See "Green Oil"; "The Changing Arctic: A Response to Freeman Dyson's "Heretical Thoughts"


LAURENCE C. SMITH

Brand and Anderson's remarks highlight beautifully the strange dichotomy that our northern high latitudes have with the rest of the world. They are remote, marginal, and thinly populated yet also have enormous potential to play with the rest of us. One way, as Anderson describes, is through sharing of their vast resource wealth. It's an iffy affair that depends crucially on the economics of transport, labor availability, and commodity prices; and often environmental regulation.

The prospect of southern refugees pouring into the Arctic — or even wanting to — is miniscule; time will whether coming decades will see the rapid growth of human activities in the North. But the pressures are there, and climate change is just one of several including demographic, political, and resource-based. Aboriginal people are in a surprisingly good position to advance northern development and with it, themselves.

Another way is through climate-change feedback loops, most famously the sea ice-albedo effect (shrinking sea ice > dark ocean exposed > less sunlight reflected to space > a net heat gain for the planet), but there are others and Brand's questions highlight some of the biggest. Albedo (reflectivity) is important not only for sea ice but for land, where a shorter snow season — or new boreal forest poking darkly out of the snow — tends to reduce it thus amplifying the warming. Clouds remain a huge uncertainty: they create opposite effects by turning away sunlight by day but trapping heat by night.

Cloud physics are poorly captured in our coarse-scale climate models and the future of cloud radiative forcing is a very active research subject. However, the models express near-unanimity when it comes to precipitation: That is going to increase. It probably already has, if only our lousy snow-gauges could measure it well enough. Other far-reaching effects of a warming North include global sea-level rise (from melting land-based glaciers, not sea ice), an easing of extreme winter cold (allowing northward penetration of southern biota, pests, and disease), and — as Brand notes, the potential unleashing of new greenhouse gas sources from thawing, carbon-rich soils.

Methane, a more potent but less voluminous greenhouse gas than CO2, is expected to rise under a warmer, wetter future thanks to accelerated anaerobic decomposition in wetlands and waterlogged soil. The fate of methane hydrates (a sort of ancient methane dry-ice, found in sea beds and some permafrost ground) is deeply controversial. CO2 release from thawing soils has, until just this week, been the biggest unknown of all: Might heating the frozen "carbon storage locker" of (relatively) undecomposed, organic-rich soils turn thawing tundra into a giant rotting compost heap, outgassing vast quantities of old sequestered carbon as freshly-made CO2 back to the atmosphere? Or would the simultaneous explosion in vegetation growth snatch back that carbon, storing it once again in the form of new biomass?

Because huge amounts of carbon constantly exit and enter northern soils — the net balance is but a tiny residual of two huge numbers of opposing sign — this question has frustrated us for years. But just this week, Ted Schuur and others may have discovered the answer. In their paper published in Nature (i) they learned, by radiocarbon dating the ages of carbon released from recent vs. not-so-recently thawed permafrost, that the vegetation grab-back is likely a temporary, transient effect. So it seems, Mr. Brand, the CO2 compost heap remains very much on the table.

__
(i) E.A.G. Schuur et al., The effect of permafrost thaw on old carbon release and net carbon exchange from tundra, Nature 459, 28 May 2009.



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