January 24th, 2011
Warming is almost universally accepted here, but have the signs of it really arrived yet? Um, yes.
Last night was the opening evening of events for the Arctic Frontiers Conference — the biggest of the seemingly endless series of workshops, meetings and symposia (including the Nordic Science Communicators Conference, the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), the Young Scientists Forum, and the Tromso International Film Festival) happening during my amazing, surreal 10 day visit here to the waaaay north in the deepest, darkest part of the Arctic winter night (and no, there haven’t been any Northern Lights alerts — apparently the sun is not cooperating lately).
ARE WE ALL CLEAR ON WHERE IN THE WORLD TROMSO, NORWAY IS? It’s not just “up there.” In one of the northernmost countries, it is their northernmost major city — well above the Arctic Circle, as I have been aware of every minute of my 10 days here. In theory, the sun is back. It should have began appearing in the southern sky for a few minutes around midday starting two days ago, but you could have fooled me. It’s been overcast and snowing, though not brutally cold as it’s mostly hovered just around freezing most days with the streets sometimes a little slushy from some melting, which seems to annoy the locals — once winter starts, they prefer a nice, comfortable, consistent blanket of dry snow. And by the way, Tromso is home to the northernmost brewery in the world, as is pointed out to me every night at the pub as another round of drafts is picked up by one of the students justifying another toast to the northernmost brewery. My paternal grandfather was Norwegian and moved to the U.S. in 1910, but you’d never know it from my inability to keep up with these folks. Sheesh.
CRANBERRIES, MOTHS AND TICKS, OH MY
What usually impresses me the most about climate change is not the large data sets, but rather the individuals you speak with that talk in a very calm, seemingly apolitical, practical voice about the patterns they see that are too obvious to ignore. At the opening reception for the Arctic Frontiers Conference I met such an individual named Paul Aspholm, who is head of the Biology Section for the Bioforsk Soil and Environment Institute. He’s a burly dude who speaks with a think accent sounding almost Russian, probably because he grew up near the Norwegian border with Russia. He’s based at one of their many isolated outposts of the north — his being due east of Tromso, just three km from the Russian border (don’t think they have a lot of shopping malls out there).
Paul is a guy for whom it is safe to say there is not a molecule of environmental activism in his body. In fact, he sort of has credentials in the opposite direction, having been a science observer on Norwegian whaling vessels for ten years (they were serving whale meat at the reception, I passed, but challenged him with a couple of the standard, “Why still whaling?” questions, and he tossed back at me the party line of it being more humane than cattle herding, and I left it at that, though if you need to know the full argument against whaling it’s never been written any more cogently than by Jennifer Jacquet here). Suffice it to say, his veins don’t bleed green. Which is relevant in the search for the truth about climate.
But he immediately began talking about what climate change looks like in his world. He started with cranberries — a northern resource that was non-existent two decades ago. Back then a fraction of a percent of the fruit bodies they produced actually ripened. Today it’s 20%. That’s a pretty obvious, observable change. They’re gearing up for this to become an agricultural industry.
Then he talked about moths. Species that two decades ago had 5 year cycles now have 3 year cycles. And then bird season — its several weeks longer. And ticks — they are moving northward (blech).
All of which sound like nice benefits of warming, but then he mentioned what’s happening with the grasses which are adapted to a solid layer of permafrost to spend the entire winter as they lay dormant. There are now repeated periods of thawing and re-freezing that have reduced the abundances of some grasses by 30%. Clearly warming is a mixed bag, and not as simple as, “Yay, we get to enjoy the tropics now!”
I spoke with a marine biologist who talked about the widening gap each year between the land and the sea ice, and it’s impact on marine communities. He also talked about the three years from 2006 to 2008 when the Spitzbergen Fjord on Svalbard didn’t freeze, and the huge, unusual impact that had on the region.
Basically everyone you speak with at this conference is up to their necks in these warming stories. Is it “global” warming? I’m not hearing any discussion of that. They’re only focused on Arctic warming. To suggest it’s not happening is to evoke a silly chuckle and reply of, “Right.”
A GLOBAL WARMING “COMEDY”? THANK GOODNESS!
On Tuesday I’ll be showing my movie, “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” twice in Oslo on the way out — during the day at a screening sponsored by the Research Council of Norway, then that evening at a pub where I’ve recommended the audience drink before, during, and after the screening (uh oh, here comes trouble!).
These will make my fifth and sixth screenings of the movie here, all of which have been huge fun. I am quick to point out in the Q&A that the movie was turned down by all six environmental film festivals we ever sent it to — several of which said they were, “Desperate for entertaining films about global warming.” But this isn’t an environmentalist crowd that is hosting me here. It’s mostly scientists who seem to have no insecurity about the subject of global warming and more importantly, collectively have a great sense of humor (anybody wonder why the public is so tired of humorless environmental films?)
You’ll get to see these attributes on display in the next essay as we post the 5 one minute student videos they created in the three day workshop, all of which I love, love, love!