G R O U N D   Z E R O

ground zero
In the world’s ‘coolest’ place, the heat is on
India being granted observer status by the Arctic Council is significant as it would be part of the select group that will decide the future of the Arctic, which is in peril. If temperatures continue to rise at the current rate, island nations like the Maldives and coastal cities like Mumbai may come under water.
Raj Chengappa

The announcement in mid-May that India had been given an observer status in the Arctic Council along with China and four other countries hardly made a splash. That’s not surprising. For most of us, the North Pole is not just the top of the world but also the end of it. Why should India potter around in this vast ice-covered ocean surrounded by frozen wasteland is a good question to ask.

I had the privilege of finding out the answer first hand when, in the summer of 2008, I, along with R.K. Pachauri, the Czar of climate change, and Thomas Friedman, famed New York Times columnist, was invited by the Danish Government to visit Greenland and see the havoc the global rise in temperatures was causing.

The earth’s northern-most landmass, Greenland is two-thirds the size of India and is mostly covered with a vast ice sheet that was formed during the Ice Age. Next to Antarctica, Greenland has the world’s largest reservoir of frozen fresh water. If the ice melted in Greenland, sea levels would rise by over 7 metres, with catastrophic consequences to island nations like the Maldives and coastal cities like Mumbai.

Unfortunately, as we observed, the unthinkable was happening. Greenland’s ice sheet was already melting at an alarming rate. That’s because temperatures in the Arctic were rising twice as fast as the rest of the globe. To see the impact we were flown to the coastal town of Illulissat known as the world’s iceberg factory. Folks call it the “coolest place on earth” because of its year-round freezing temperatures. Its fjords are said to have produced the iceberg that possibly sank the Titanic in 1912.
Glacier melt seen near the coastal town of Illulissat in Greenland. Photo by Raj Chengappa
Glacier melt seen near the coastal town of Illulissat in Greenland. Photo by Raj Chengappa

Tinted by brilliant shades of blue, a section of one of the icebergs collapsed right in front of us with a thunderous sound. Residents informed us that in recent times there had been such a build of icebergs at the fjord that these were causing a traffic jam. One of Illulissat’s major glaciers had retreated as much as 12 km in a single year. A helicopter ride gave us a dramatic view of the immense glacier, and Connie Hedegaard, then Danish Climate and Energy Minister, perceptively observed, “How small you feel when you fly over the ice sheet and yet it is our footprint that is upsetting nature’s balance.”

I called up Pachauri on Saturday to find out if the distressing conditions in Greenland persisted. Pachauri continues to be Director General of the Inter-Government Panel on Climate Change that has been tasked by the UN with assessing the impact of global warming and suggesting measures to alleviate the problem. Coincidentally, he had just returned from Greenland and he told me, “The ice sheet continues to melt at the same rate that we saw five years ago. It’s pretty awful.”

If temperatures continue to rise in the Arctic at the current rate, scientists predict there is likely to be a near complete melting of the Arctic ice sheet in 80 years. Simultaneously there could be melting of the permafrost in the Arctic that could release substantial quantities of methane, which could lead to further rise in global temperatures. The ocean currents would also be altered, leading to unexpected weather changes and impact on marine life.

It was in this worrying background 17 years ago the Arctic Council was formed. It is a high-level intergovernmental forum, consisting of eight Arctic States — Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US. The Council’s main aim is “to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic indigenous communities and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.”

India being granted observer status by the Council is significant as it would now be part of the select nations that will decide the future of the Arctic. There could be some benefits too as the melting of the frozen seas may make the Arctic Ocean navigable for ships, turning it into a prime trade route. It also raises the possibility of nations tapping oilfields in the seabed. Pachauri believes India could also contribute substantially to the scientific research in the region. This could prove useful for assessing the impact of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

On that trip to Greenland I was witness to one such major ongoing research on the ice sheet in the middle of literally nowhere. I recall the sun never set that day. I took a walk at midnight and the ice sheet was a blinding white stretching as far as the horizon. My boots sank knee deep into the soft snow, making it difficult to walk. I watched scientists mount an ice-core driller and take out a cylindrical core of ice. This was then carted to an underground laboratory where they studied it in depth.

These cores of ice with air bubbles inside provided a perfectly preserved record of climatic conditions prevailing right up to prehistoric times. They could provide the world with a clue as to why and how climate changes occurred in the past to help us understand what is happening now.

Later, some of the ice cores were cut up to be had with whisky on the rocks. It numbed the shock of seeing how close we were to the edge of a catastrophic climate change, only for a while though. It is imperative that we all do something to reverse the deadly process that is engulfing us — and do it now.




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