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Alun Anderson on top of a mountain in east Greenland. Photo credit: John McConnico
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Alun Anderson: I'd like a big volcanic eruption and an Arctic disaster

Laura Sevier

22nd February, 2010

Former editor of New Scientist and author of After The Ice: Life, Death and Politics in the New Arctic on climategate, polar military activity and the icecap's chances

Laura Sevier: The Arctic is global warming's canary in the coalmine with temperatures rising faster than anywhere else on the planet. Do you find it strange that people are still denying the science of anthropogenic climate change?

Alun Anderson: In some ways I do. You frequently hear these arguments about the global temperature record from weather stations: that is the latest one they're questioning, the hockey stick graph and some examples of not very good science - like the glacier problem we've had.

When you say to them: ‘What has happened to an area of Arctic ice ten times the size of California? It used to be frozen but it isn't anymore,' there is simply no answer. The evidence for global warming is not one thing - it's a great variety of things. And the Arctic - the canary in the coalmine - is just a killer.

LS: Arctic sea ice has been retreating over the past 30 years. Estimates for an ice-free sea in Summer range from 2015 to 2045. What are the implications of this?

AA: It's an absolute catastrophe for all the creatures that depend on ice that live up there. Once you have really ice free summers it's very difficult to see how some of them can survive. The worst affected of all of course will be the polar bear because it is so dependent on using ice to go out and hunt the seals.

As sea ice melts and the water warms, much warmer air will flow over the surrounding Arctic lands and the Greenland ice cap will melt faster. As it melts faster, glaciers are speeding up and flowing into the sea faster, so we are looking at certainly a metre's rise this century if you take the Antarctic and the global expansion of the oceans into account too. So that's a lot.

LS: You say in your book that it's too late to stop the warming dead in its tracks by cutting our greenhouse gas emissions. Have we reached a tipping point with the arctic ice?

AA: I believe we have reached a tipping point with the arctic ice where anything that is politically plausible now will not save the ice. However, we can still reduce the warming on the wider arctic - the arctic lands - so that we have a chance to stop the runaway emissions of methane or at least to slow it down and make it happen over thousands of years instead of hundreds.

But on the arctic ice it's too late. I haven't met a single scientist who thinks there's anything we can do now that can save the sea ice in total. We might get some of it left in the corners of the Canadian islands which will be a very important refuge for the polar bear and other creatures.

LS: What's the impact of air pollution on the Arctic?

AA: I think this is very important and often missed out. Large parts of the melting ice - we don't know how much but it could be as much as a third - is being caused by air pollution. Hazes of air pollution are travelling up from the south into the Arctic. They hang in the air and absorb sunlight and warm the air; they fall onto the ice and make the ice slightly darker, and then the ice absorbs more heat because it's slightly black rather than white and it melts faster.

This air pollution is coming from the burning of agricultural fields, right across Europe - Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, across China and partly in Canada and the central part of the US - in North and South Dakota - that's all travelling up into the Arctic and along with that are fine particulates from diesel fumes. Wiping out this air pollution would be a great benefit to the Arctic.

LS: Do you think the Arctic will be the scene for future military conflict or fights over the region's riches?

AA: I think it's actually very unlikely because the places where most of the oil and gas exist are in waters that are accepted as belonging to one nation or another (that's because of the 200 mile economic zone).

But there's a border between Norway and Russia that is full of fish, oil and gas and it's disputed and that is the one to watch. If that becomes really strategically important to Russia, there's going to be trouble.

LS: What do you make of geo-engineering ideas to try to influence the climate on a large scale (such as spraying aerosols into the Arctic stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cut the warming effect)?

AA: It fills me with horror because the chance that we could really know what their impact could be is really small. This is their last desperate measure you'd want to take to save the planet. There's an old joke that every technology is merely trying to solve the problems created by the technology you had before.

I wouldn't mind a big volcanic eruption - that would give us a two year respite from global warming and might just help us get to action which the Copenhagen summit didn't get to.

LS: How do we go about restoring public trust in climate scientists following 'climategate'?

AA: I'm more critical of those climate scientists than other scientists are. I think there has been a bit of closing of the ranks to say it wasn't really that bad. I just think we need much greater transparency in how science is done and really the science community is not doing what I hoped and saying ‘what is the real fault that we've made here' and instead they're just trying to do business at usual.

There is one wonderful project I mention in the book - the SEARCH programme for sea ice in which every year scientists say at the beginning of the year how much sea ice they think will be left at the end of the summer. Month by month they revise their predictions, they explain why they're revising them.

All the discussion is on a website open to the public - transparent, how scientists think, when they get things wrong, how they deal with error. That's the way to go and not more and more exchanges of emails between people who think they're battling the world. I think that's completely wrong.

LS: What do you think needs to happen before action on a really wide scale action on climate change takes place?

AA: I'm moving to the position that humans won't act unless there's a disaster really close to them. Humans are just hopeless at dealing with things that are far off.

When I say humans I should actually say men - there's lots of psychological work showing that men are absolutely terrible at dealing with long term problems and that they deal with things just before the shit hits the fan.

That has made me rather depressed. You get a cold winter and everybody says ‘global warming isn't real.' My hope is that the Arctic, sad though I am to see it go, might be the thing that makes the world think. Because if it goes quite quickly, it will be so dramatic.

If you take that view from outer space and you see our globe hanging there in space; it has a big white cap on the northern hemisphere but one day it will be gone. I think that change is going to be sufficiently powerful to make the world act so I feel that the death of the Arctic might mean life for the rest of the planet.

After The Ice: Life, Death and Politics in the New Arctic by Alun Anderson (£20, Virgin Books) is out now

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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