A Chilling Warning from a “Hot Spot” in Climate Change

Ed note. This is a special guest post from UN Foundation Executive Director of Public Affairs Aaron Sherinian, who accompanied the UN Foundation board on a climate change fact-finding trip to Svalbard, Norway last week.

By Aaron Sherinian

Jan-Gunnar Winther is a tall guy.  He’s friendly, speaks with deliberate words in a distinct Norwegian accent, and knows what he’s talking about.  As Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute, he is a leading glaciologist – an expert on ice, glaciers, their importance and impact.   The UN Foundation travelled with Jan-Gunnar during an expedition in the Arctic region last week.  After we had a chance to board the Svalbard Governor’s boat, Jan-Gunnar told us a story about what is happening to our world when it comes to climate change.  This was a story told with data, examples of what Jan-Gunnar and hundreds of scientists have observed, and what we saw with our own eyes.

Jan-Gunnar has worked in places that most people only imagine:  the Arctic and Antarctica.  He told us about the changes he has seen in both poles, North and South, over the course of his career.  But he spent a lot of time teaching us about what is happening at 78 degrees North, where our boat was moving around the Arctic.   He called the region around Svalbard – famous for its polar bears – a “hot spot” when it comes to climate change.  There are changes happening here that are faster than in other places around the world and that are linked to human activity – what modern society is doing to the environment.

He explained that it is impossible to watch climate change in just one day, but that large changes are going on.  He explained that the signs are clear:  the temperature, the glaciers, the ecosystem are all feeling the impact of a warming world.

Scientists including Jan-Gunnar explained to us this week that evidence of climate change is a trend that has been playing out over years.  There are fluctuations that take place from year to year, in temperature and sea ice extent.  It is not as if every year is a record year…but the overall change is a global change.  He said that “sometimes the media wants to see records every year.”  He expressed frustration that many people in the world today only view climate information in very brief snapshots, either over short time periods or taking into account very limited areas.  Many people get their information about climate from snippets of discussion on the news related to weather.  But this does not paint a complete picture of climate change, its causes or its impacts.  In Svalbard, a full range of issues and these questions come into view.

“Signals of climate change are visible in this region,” said Kim Holmén, Research Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute.  This internationally acclaimed atmospheric scientist and expert in the Arctic region challenged us to think about what the ocean is telling us about the state of our planet.  Acidification of the oceans worries Kim, and it should be worrying us.  He explained that changes produced by human beings are having an alarming impact on levels of carbon dioxide in the polar regions.  He said that by 2018, 10% of Arctic surface waters will be unable to sustain important organisms that are necessary to maintain the current balance in this delicate ecosystem.  This will affect coral reefs, species like shrimp, lobster and plankton.

While we heard many different ideas from the scientists and local government leaders we met with today, one theme was clear:  something is happening in Svalbard that points to change in the world around us.  Human beings have caused many of these changes – and human beings are going to have to help find the solutions.  Svalbard’s Vice-Governor Lars Erik Alfheim put it best when he said, “I wish people would return from Svalbard with a greater appreciation for how much they consume, how they treat their environment, and what they can do to improve their world.”  While it is chilly here in Svalbard, there is evidence all around of hot-button issues that the world must address.

Learn more, and listen to UN Foundation Founder and Chairman Ted Turner talk with Senator Timothy E. Wirth, President of the Foundation, and Reid Detchon, Vice-President for Energy and Climate, about their trip to Svalbard and what the group saw and learned at www.unfoundation.org.