World Federation of
Science Journalists

Amundsen - Raghida Haddad

Raghida Haddad
Executive Editor, Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development) magazine, Lebanon



Raghida Haddad, from Lebanon, is executive editor of Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development), the leading environment magazine in the Middle East and North Africa. She is also manager of Technical Publications, producing books, booklets, reports and press kits related to environment and sustainable development. A biologist and university lecturer on media translation, Raghida Haddad is also a mentor in the World Federation of Science Journalists' peer-to-peer programme.

The Arctic, 23 July 2008

White night

Helicopter captain' aide
Last night I slept in a swing. That's how it felt like on the Amundsen, floating in the rough Arctic Ocean. Finally I am aboard the Canadian Coast Guard research icebreaker, but no ice to break. Just open blue water. It's definitely here where climate change is mostly claiming its toll.

I arrived yesterday by helicopter from Banks Island, after a 90-minute flight from Inuvik, a beautiful colourful town in the Canadian North Western Territories. On that barren freezing island, I could imagine what life on the moon could be like. Surprisingly, 120 Inuvialuits still live there in the coastal community of Sachs Harbour. I might get a chance to meet the natives upon my return and have a glimpse at their way of life.

Landing with munition on Banks Island
A young Inuit (commonly known as Eskimo) came to the air strip where we were waiting for the helicopter. I asked him how livable it is on the island. "I work in Inuvik," he said, "but I come back here on weekends. This is where I grew up, hunting and fishing. This is home."

Colourful houses of Inuvik
Home, sweet home, even on a remote moonlike island in the Arctic. I recalled getting a similar answer from a young man working in Abu Dhabi, who was keen to go back home to Liwa oasis in the desert on weekends and holidays.

I had a short meeting with the researchers on board. There will be plenty of time during my two-week stay to talk to them and see what they have been up to.

As I went to bed around 11pm, the ship was swaying, heading west to calmer waters. I could hear the sound of engines, but I finally slept, filling my ears with children songs of my nephew and niece whom I left behind in San Jose, California.

The Arctic, 24 July 2008

Ship Tour

We are navigating in the Beaufort Sea, off Banks Island. Looking from the upper deck, I found myself at the center of a blue circle. I finally believed the Earth is round.

Helicopter on board thhe Amundsen
The seven newcomers on the Amundsen were given guided familiarization, designed for visitors aboard Canadian Coast Guard vessels. It started with training on emergency procedures: Donning a lifejacket and an immersion suit, launching and boarding lifeboats and rafts, boarding the helicopter, operating watertight doors and using fire alarms and extinguishing equipment. The meanings of specific symbols were explained, in addition to medical services available on board and the policy concerning drugs and alcohol. No smoking allowed inside the ship.

My cabin is comfortable, equipped like a hotel room: toilet, shower, sheets, towels, TV and internet. No balcony, but a window to the ocean and to the 24 hours of sunlight.

There is a busy tiny gym situated just behind the bridge. But one can also exercise climbing five flights of stairs or fast-walking on the decks, breathing fresh clean air far from all sources of pollution.

Chief scientist Gary Stern clarifying operations in the daily meeting
Meals are a beautiful story. Breakfast at 7:30am-8:30 am, lunch (called here "dinner") at 11:30am-12:30 pm and supper at 5:00pm-6:00pm. Breakfast for today was omelet, a collection of cheese, jams and fresh fruits. Lunch: lentil soup, salade nicoise, pepper steak and cheese cake. Dinner: grilled salmon with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables, spaghetti, green salad and a choice of desserts. There is an open 24-hour self-service of juices, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, milk, cereal, desserts, fruits... and even platters for those who missed their meals working.

The Amundsen cuisine could be rated as a five-star restaurant.

The Arctic, 25 July 2008

Voices of the deep

Cabling the ADCP that collects ocean current data
You can't expect what one might encounter walking around the Amundsen. This morning, on my way back from a lab, I saw two technicians working on a cylindrical tool: a hydrophone. What's that? "Well," one explained, "it's an instrument to detect and hear the songs of whales." Flocks of whales dwell in the Arctic Ocean at this time of the year. We might be lucky to come across a family.

Lowering the ADCP into the water
6:00 pm was time for mooring. Detection and sampling instruments are descended in the water almost every day. At that specific location, some 200 meters deep, they will be left for one whole year. I watched the technicians caringly tie each instrument to the main cable of a giant crane: A nutrient sensor, an acoustic Doppler current profiler (ADCP) to measure current speed and variations, a toilet-looking sediment trap, and a hydrophone to detect and hear the songs of whales and other voices of the deep.

The mooring team
These instruments were attached at different distances, in order to be immersed at specific depths. Buoys were fixed on top to keep visual contact, and an anchor was dropped to insure the cabled instruments will stay at that location. The anchor is made of iron, with no chemicals, to disintegrate naturally in sea water without causing environmental harm.

Two specialists on a motor boat dragged the moorings away from the ship. They shall come back hunting for the instruments and resulting data next year.

The Arctic, 26 July 2008

Whales for My Birthday

"Ms. Haddad, there are whales out there. Come up to the bridge."

Whale blowing out air at a distance
I jumped out of my bed at the Captain's call, put on my thermal pants and jacket and hit the bridge. A family of three whales was diving about one kilometer away. A small part of their backs would show, but the blowing out of air and water after each dive was spectacular. A couple of scientists were there and we watched the whales for fifteen minutes through binoculars. Two other families showed up, but they were too far to catch in a photograph.

Captain Stephan Julian showing the paths of whales
Several species of whales navigate these Arctic waters, though the populations of some are so much reduced that they rarely show up nowadays. Of the baleen family there are blue, fin, minke, humpback and North Atlantic right whales. Representing the toothed family are the beluga, long finned pilot, killer, northern bottleneck and sperm whales, in addition to the white-sided and white-beaked dolphins and the harbour porpoise. Captain Stephan Julian took out a map from a drawer and showed me their path along the cliffy Northern Passage sea bed, downstream the cold Arctic currents.

Christmas in July
I missed breakfast this morning, but it was worth it. Tonight we shall celebrate Christmas in July. It was supposed to be yesterday on the 25th, six months after traditional Christmas. But I guess they postponed it for my birthday.

The Arctic, 27 July 2008

Inuit on Board

Trevor, an Inuit from Banks Island, is wildlife observer on deck. He works two weeks on the Amundsen and gets back to his village for two weeks.

Villagers on the island sustain themselves mainly by fishing and hunting caribou, musk ox and snow geese that land on the island in hundreds of thousands. But what do caribou eat on the island? "Lichens," Trevor said, "and there is a lot of grass and flowers in summer." But summer is very short on this 250-mile long island, just two months. So Inuits cannot grow vegetables and fruits, which are now flown to the island and sold at very high prices.

The villagers also have an annual quota to hunt 28 polar bears which they sell for their hides. "But we have not filled our quota in the past years. Fewer bears are showing up and most of the young people are now hooked to computer and internet." Whales do not get close enough to the island and his people own small boats not equipped for whale hunting, which is practiced by Inuits on other islands.

Inuit children in Inuvik
There's a school in the village of 120 inhabitants which teaches till grade 9, after which students usually go to Inuvik on mainland. A nurse provides medical care on the island and the Canadian governments covers all medical expenses.

"There is so much open space and outdoor living and our people are closely attached to each other," Trevor told me. "I will not trade my life in the village for anything in the world."

The Arctic, 29 July 2008

Nations Unite to Study Arctic Meltdown

The Arctic sea ice has shrunk at an average annual rate of about 70,000 km2 since 1979. The Circumpolar Flaw Lead (CFL) system study, funded by the Canadian Government, is examining how physical changes affect biological processes. An international team of researchers is studying impacts on the marine ecosystem, contaminant transport, and the exchange of greenhouse gases across the ocean, ice and atmosphere. The project is using the Canadian icebreaker CCGS Amundsen as a research platform in one of the most remote places on earth.

Here is a summary of the research conducted. It might be unusually scientific to the common reader, but it specifies the main concerns of Arctic meltdown.

Physical oceanography: One objective of the project is to understand the physical processes occurring in the water column and what happens under the ice in the winter months. Scientists measure currents, density structure and mixing processes in the first 10 meters under the ice. This may clarify, for instance, how these processes will influence ice algae production.

Sea ice: The area of Arctic sea ice has dramatically declined during the past decades, due to unprecedented changes in the climate system. Computer simulations predict an ice-free ocean in the Arctic during summer in the near future. These changes in sea ice have a direct impact on the life of Northern communities, animals and birds. The flaw lead, which is the focus of the CFL project, is a passageway between drift ice and fast ice (ice attached to the shore) which is navigable by vessels. Annually, ice forms in fall/winter and melts in spring/summer. Warmer temperatures will likely cause this flaw lead to open earlier than before. The project aims at understanding how this early opening (and thinner ice) affects the underlying ocean layer and adjacent fast ice.

Plant production: Plants fuel nearly all of the Earth's ecosystems, by utilizing sun energy to produce food through photosynthesis. During this process, plants fix carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, into food molecules. This connects them indirectly to the global climate. In seasonally ice-covered seas, plants can be found in two general habitats: associated with sea ice (sea ice algae) and suspended in the upper water column (phytoplankton). Algae and phytoplankton provide an initial food source for all marine animals. The CFL project is studying their dynamics and those of other life forms that co-exist in the sea ice environment, like viruses and bacteria. Samples are collected from sea ice and water to perform a variety of analyses, measuring algae/phytoplankton production and mortality along with various chemical properties.

Food web: The fragmented, thin, and often absent ice cover in the flaw lead allows solar radiation to reach the surface layer of the ocean where it triggers photosynthesis by microscopic algae. The project investigates how and to what extent the microalgae are exploited by animals living near the surface (zooplankton) and on the sea floor (the benthos). The sophisticated scientific equipment of the CCGS Amundsen enables scientists to sample the distribution and condition of zooplankton, fish and benthic fauna. The moorings (immersed equipment) also carry acoustic hydrophones that record the sounds of marine mammals, an index of abundance and frequentation periods. Measures of respiration, grazing, and egg production of key zooplankton species will complete the study by providing carbon flux rates.
As the Arctic Ocean warms up, its environment becomes progressively less suitable to the highly specialized animals that form its unique fauna. Already, we see multiple signs that these "specialists" are displaced by "generalists" immigrating from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Marine mammals: Polar bears and seals survive overwinter by using the sea ice and open water. In spring, whales and sea birds migrate from southern waters into the Arctic to breed. One research area is to better understand predator-prey interrelations between polar bears and ringed seals, and to monitor the movement of key bird and mammal species as they migrate into the thinning spring ice. How will global warming and earlier spring melt affect their life history processes such as survival and reproduction? Aerial surveys by helicopter and planes are conducted during critical phases to monitor birds and whale movements and feeding activities. Acoustic immersed instruments monitor the arrival of bowhead, beluga, and killer whales. Seals are tagged and polar bears collared to follow their movements under and across sea-ice landscapes. This study will provide detailed information of animal movement in the water and on the sea ice and interactions with climate events.

Gas fluxes: Absorption and release of carbon dioxide by the oceans is one of the primary factors controlling its atmospheric concentration. The Arctic tends to absorb so much CO2 because cold water dissolves more gas (like a warm soda fizzes more when opened than a cold one), and spring-time photosynthesis is often faster than respiration, allowing the dead plant cells to sink to the bottom before being consumed by organisms that breath out CO2. Scientists recently learned that sea ice can also absorb a lot of CO2, but they don't yet know how it happens. Researchers in the CFL project are studying the air-sea exchange of greenhouse gases, including CO2, CO and methane, as well as the photo-reactive gases bromine and bromine chloride, which help control ozone and mercury cycles.

Carbon fluxes: The micro-algae that grow in the brine channels of ice and in surface waters are the ultimate source of food for the marine food web, much like grass sustains cattle on land. A major distinction is that micro-algae are not fixed to the ground and can fall hundreds of meters beneath the sunlit layer. When that happens, food is effectively lost for the herbivores living near the surface. Some of the sinking biomass is decomposed by microbes during transit and the rest reaches the bottom, where it can feed animals or store carbon in the sediment. The resulting transfer of photosynthetically-fixed carbon from the surface to the deep ocean should favour the net intake of CO2 by the ocean and mitigate the greenhouse effect. The ability of marine grazers to exploit micro-algae presumably depends on their reproductive cycle and the timing of micro-algae, which in turn depend on the availability of light and nutrients. One can expect perturbations of the food web if ice melts and the life cycle of key herbivores becomes desynchronized. A CFL team investigates how the different pathways of carbon and nutrient flow are likely to be impacted by further climate change.

Contaminants: Global climate change models indicate the potential for substantial changes in many components of the Arctic environment, including temperature, precipitation, winds, ocean currents, lake and river hydrology, and snow and ice cover. These changes will clearly alter the pathways by which contaminants are delivered to the Arctic. CFL researchers conduct mercury measurements in near-surface air, snow and ice cores, ocean water, sediments and food webs. In addition to mercury, most samples are analyzed for halogenated organic contaminants such as pesticides, persistent organic compounds (PCB), brominated flame retardants and fluorinated organic compounds. Continuous air measurements of PCBs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other contaminants will be conducted .

Modeling: Scientists will utilize climate and biophysical variables collected during the CFL project to validate model prediction of seasonal variations in ocean, sea-ice and atmospheric conditions. They will incorporate numerical tracers to track pathways and modification of major arctic water masses (Pacific and Atlantic water, river runoff, and melt-water). Testing of the regional models will rely upon meteorological data from the Amundsen and surrounding terrestrial stations. The models will be used to examine surface forcing in the region, including cyclones.

Arctic people: A team in the CFL project facilitates the integration of traditional knowledge, with the vision of community needs and research objectives. Members of the Inuit (known as Eskimo) hunters and trappers have been engaged early in the planning process through public meetings held in native communities. Activities include studying traditional knowledge and past successful community-based monitoring programs. Inuit leaders and decision makers from the Circumpolar regions (Canada, Alaska, Greenland and Russia) were engaged to communicate their perspectives of the vulnerabilities and challenges facing Inuit populations due to climate change, share and explore adaptation measures and identify the resources required to mitigate the effects of climate change for communities in the Arctic.

The Arctic, 30 July 2008

Floating Life

Midnight patrol
It is never too late to do anything in the arctic summer. Last night I went out to watch the midnight sun, hovering above the horizon. Four researchers on a motorboat were inspecting buoys that define the location of immersed equipment in the ocean. Three others were on deck, carrying water samples from the Rosette, a huge appparatus with 24 computer-controlled cylinders that collect water at different depths, reaching down to some 900 meters.

Mary Thaler in lab
In one of the labs, Mary Thaler, a PhD student of molecular biology at Laval University, was filtering water samples for the use of several labs and research centers in Canada and abroad. For her own research, she would extract DNA and RNA to detect genes and figure out what single-celled organisms dwelled there.

How will climate change affect marine life such as this?

Phytoplankton (floating plants) are seasonal in the Arctic and North Atlantic, Thaler explained. In winter, they are covered by ice. When ice breaks and melts in spring and summer, their population blooms, exposed to sunlight. With global warming, however, the timing of their bloom may come earlier.

Tiny crustaceans and other zooplankton (floating animals) time their reproduction with the abundance of these plants. If phytoplankton bloom early and zooplankton reproduce in normal time, they will not have enough food to sustain. Moreover, less ice in water might reduce the blooming of some micro-plants and the domination of fewer species.

Midnight sun
As blooming patterns change due to global warming, some algae populations increase enomously and become a nuisance. "In some parts of Canada," Thaler added, "we are having red tides of poisonous algae. Their toxins get into the bodies of humans who consume mussels that thrive on them. In New Brunswick, where I lived, it is now common to see signs warning people not to eat shellfish."

On the other hand, a loss of plankton that fish - and seals eventually - depend on was considered to be a factor in cannibalism observed in 2006 among polar bears in the southern Beaufort Sea, where the Amundsen is now navigating. A lack of their usual prey might have prompted them to prey on one another.

The Arctic, 31 July 2008

The Shrinking of Earth's Air Conditioner

Enormous chunks of ice broke few days ago from the Ward Hunt ice shelf, off Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic. Their total area was estimated at 20 square kilometers. Much of the cracked Ward Hunt shelf remains vulnerable.
There was once an enormous ice shelf along the island, with an area of 9000 square kilometers. It broke off into five shelves totaling some 1000 square kilometers.

The Arctic has lost about a third of its ice since satellite measurements started 30 years ago. This amounts to some 3.8 million square kilometers, with a present rate of about 70,000 square kilometers per year. A record meltdown last summer fully opened the Northwest Passage to navigation. If melting continues at this increasing rate, scientists project that the Arctic summer could be ice-free maybe as soon as 2013.

Over two million square kilometers of polar ice pack has disappeared over the 5-year period 2003-2007
"Over two million square kilometers of polar ice pack has disappeared over the 5-year period 2003-2007," said Gary Stern, chief scientist on the Amundsen. The minimum sea ice extent is seen in September.

Described as Earth's air conditioner, the Arctic helps cool the planet with its white sun-reflecting sea ice. This ice melts in spring and summer and refreezes in fall and winter. With the Arctic warming about twice as fast as the rest of the globe in the last decades, the overwhelming melting will reduce this cooling process. It will also disrupt marine ecosystems and devastate wildlife, including polar bears and seals. However, it will open the Arctic to shipping and to oil and gas production.

Biologists have suggested that the hybrid of a polar bear and a grizzly bear will increase in number. Due to climate change, grizzlies are moving north while polar bears are forced to be on the beach. Several "grolar bear" hybrids were sighted recently.

Mukesh Gupta
Mukesh Gupta, from India, pursuing his doctorate in Manitoba University, is studying surface roughness in the marginal ice zone, which is a "window" of exchange between the ocean, the sea and the atmosphere. He has spent 18 weeks aboard the Amundsen in three shifts.

"We do not know yet the rate of ice melting and breaking, which can be higher than etimated," he said. "What was very unusual, however, was to find the flaw lead navigable halfway up north along the coast of Banks Island last December. That was a unique opportunity to reach M'Clure Strait and take water samples at this time of the year."

"Moreover," he added, "the ice bridge between the southern tip of the island and mainland did not form for the first time in recorded history."

He encountered little wildlife during his three Legs on the Amundsen: an Arctic fox, a polar owl and sea birds. "We saw two polar bears on broken ice in mid-July and one in June swimming some 40 kilometers away from land with no ice around."

Hopping on sea ice
Here's a sad story about polar bears. They use ice floes as a means of transportation to hunt seals. With ice increasingly melting, they sometimes get stuck on an ice floe in the middle of the water and can't jump to another that doesn't exist around. So they dive to hunt, sometimes very far away that they get too tired trying to return to land more than two hundred kilometers away. So they drown.

Gupta has worked with the Indian Space Research Organization for seven years, collecting satellite data to observe ocean properties and the path and settlement of sediments. Minerals mostly found in the Himalayas were observed in high concentrations in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Bengal. This meant that glaciers are melting fast after holding thousands of years in the Himalayas and traveling to the Indian Ocean more than 2000 kilometers away.

With a sea level rise of three centimeters in the last 100 years, erosion and accretion (accumulation of sediments) were observed in all 7500 kilometers of Indian coasts, along with the formation of small islands and sand spits, especially since 2004.

"Changes that are supposed to happen in millions of years," said Gupta, "happened in a few decades."

The Arctic, 2 August 2008

Surviving the Ocean

No wonder thousands of navigators perished in these treacherous waters. There was a storm and the sea was rough for two days. Aboard this gigantic 8500-ton vessel swaying with waves and trotting on submerged ice, I couldn't imagine how ancient sailors survived the wrath of the oceans. But it seems I can endure sea life, for I haven't yet used any of the Dramamine pills I brought with me for sea sickness.

Cristina Romera
Not much work was done during this time of delicate steering maneuvers, as moorings could not be deployed nor retrieved for data and sampling. Cristina Romera, from Spain, guided me to some of the 12 labs on the Amundsen. She is collecting water samples for the Instituto de Ciencias del Mar in Barcelona, to study their contents of chlorophyll, bacteria, viruses and other arctic micro-organisms. Some of these samples will be stored in freezers under temperatures as low as -80˚C using liquid nitrogen.

For her PhD research in marine chemistry, Romera studies organic matter in seawater at different depths, which is closely linked to the activity of bacteria. "New mysteries unravel continuously in the oceans," she said. "Bacteria are everywhere. You can find them living in very high or cold temperatures where no other organisms can live."

Bacteria transform organic matter into refractory substances - wastes that no other organism would use. When these substances reach the top of the water column and are irradiated by the sun, they are transformed into nutrients and other organic molecules useful to other organisms, completing the carbon cycle.

"Research on the samples which my colleagues and I are taking from the Arctic water column might reveal unexpected links between organic matter and bacteria," Romera added.

The World of Benthos
Heike Link and her benthos
Walking on the deck for a bit of exercise, I reached a closed door. Inside, I saw a young woman with two trays of starfish, clams, worms and other benthos -- sea floor animals bigger than 0.5mm. Heike Link, a German PhD student at the University of Quebec in Rimouski, documents diversity and abundance of benthic communities in the Canadian Arctic and the role they play in the ecosystem.

"Many of the animals living in and on the bottom feed on dead algae and phytoplankton that sink down the water column," she explained. "As they consume food, they also produce nutrients which diffuse back to the water column and become a resource for the next phytoplankton bloom." The equilibrium between phytoplankton (floating plants) and zooplankton (floating animals) is likely to be changed with environmental change, she added. Her team is measuring the consumption of oxygen and nutrient changes by benthic communities.

I left Link in her lab, inspecting a dragon fish and spectacular worms inside tubes that they build with slime and mud. After a while she would sift sediments brought up from another location in the bottom of the ocean. They might reveal new forms of life in the Arctic deep.

In the Belly of the Amundsen
Chief engineer Vincent Grondin
Later on during the day, chief engineer Vincent Grondin took me and two young visiting researchers to see the engine room, which proved to be a huge marine cathedral. He explained how the ship is operated at different levels to be a self-sufficient "building". Electricity is generated on board. Sea water is desalinated by evaporation and condensation, to provide fresh water for the engines, bathrooms and human consumption. I discovered that I have been drinking Arctic distilled water for the past nine days. Wastewater is biologically treated by bacteria and chlorinated before disposal into the ocean. The bottom of the ship is an enormous reservoir that holds 2700 cubic meters of fuel. Fire and water-tight doors are remotely shut and opened in emergencies and water sprinklers turned on automatically all over the vessel in case a fire erupts. The Amundsen can be controlled from the engine room if control is lost on the bridge.

Amazing how ancient ships crossed the oceans without such modern technology.

The Arctic, 3 August 2008

The Physics of It

Measuring wave slopes by laser
The sea had been turbulent during the past few days, with foaming waves shattering on the surface and on our icebreaker. Walking on the front deck, I saw Silvia Gremes-Cordero fitting one of her instruments on a pole and hauling it on the side above the sea. "This is a laser instrument to measure wave slopes, which is one way to calculate gas transfer," she explained.

Gremes-Cordero, from Argentina, is researching air-sea interaction in the "boundary layer", measuring factors of turbulence within the first 10 meters in the atmosphere and the first 5 meters in the ocean. "By studying small-scale turbulence, we can study gas transfer," she added. This is especially important in calculating the ocean intake of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas considered to enhance global warming."

In addition to her laser instrument, she uses a PCO2 system that measures concentration of carbon dioxide in water. The Flux Tower measures variations in wind speed and direction, in addition to CO2 concentration, temperature and humidity in the atmosphere.

Silvia Gremes-Cordero preparing to plunge in the Arctic (photo: Alison MacHutchison)
Before her Arctic expedition, Gremes-Cordero worked on two experiments related to phytoplankton (tiny floating plants) bloom during summer in the North Atlantic and the Labrador Sea. "When there is a bloom, there will be a big gradient (variation) in carbon dioxide between air and ocean," she says. "We are calculating the exchange of gas, its velocity and the factors that favour or inhibit this exchange, such as temperature, wind speed and wave breaking."

For her doctorate thesis in applied marine physics in the University of Miami, Gremes-Corder is trying to find an improved equation of these transfers: "When developing climate models, the more you know about interactions between the atmosphere and the ocean, the more accurate the models are."

Ocean Acidification

"As the sea absorbs more CO2 from the atmosphere, its acidity increases," says Stephanie Moore, a Canadian researcher on the Amundsen. She is onboard measuring dissolved inorganic carbon in the Arctic water at different depths, as well as the total alkalinity, that is the water capacity to neutralize acids. Together, these two parameters help scientists characterize the ocean's inorganic carbon chemistry and study the global carbon cycle.

A new study published in late July revealed how some marine animals could be affected by acidic sea water. Scientists from Sweden and Australia allowed sea urchins to mate in water where the pH was lowered from normal 8.1 to a level of 7.7. This corresponds to an environment of triple acidity expected by the end of this century.

Female sea urchins release their eggs in the water to be fertilized by mail sperm. In this acidic sea water, however, their reproductive rate dropped by 25 percent, as the sperm swam slower and less effectively. "Species with limestone skeletons or shells that could be broken down in more acidic environments are hit particularly hard when pH drops," said John Havenhand, a member of the research team.

Scientists still have to find out if other marine animals exhibit a similar effect, especially commercial species such as lobsters, crabs, mussels and fish.

The Arctic, 4 August, 2008

A Toxic Journey

After surviving the storm yesterday, we spent all day in a sea of mist. Navigating in the fog, you see nothing. Too bad we couldn't make it to Nelson Head, that beautiful part of Banks Island, where we had made plans to hike to the highest peak in the Western Arctic. It was too risky for the helicopter to fly us to the island, because of the bad weather. Hayley Hung, who went there with a scouting team to locate a suitable trek, told me about caribou, musk ox, Arctic snow geese and beautiful flowers they saw from up there.

Dr. Hung, a chemical engineer from Environment Canada, is the lead researcher of IPY INCATPA, the International Polar Year programme for intercontinental atmospheric transport of anthropogenic pollutants to the arctic, a collaboration between Canada, the United States, Russia, China, Japan and Vietnam. The aim of the study is to measure persistent organic pollutants (POPs) and mercury in air around the pan-Pacific area, using computer models to describe their movement and assess the impact of climate change on their deposition in the Arctic.

These contaminants have been found at high levels in some Arctic marine mammals, consumed by Northern people, where they accumulate and stay in the body for a long time. They reach the Arctic due to the "grasshopper effect" of air movement from south to north, Hung explained. Some precipitate to the water and can travel with water currents, but their fastest route to the north is via the atmosphere, accelerated by winds. In winter 1995, for example, pesticides banned in Canada were observed in the northwestern Yukon Territory. By "fingerprinting", they were traced back to air masses that originated in Asia five days earlier and crossed the Pacific within this short period.

Hayley Hung with air sampling equipment at Alert Global Atmopheric Watch Station in Ellesmere Island (photo: Alex Urosevic, Toronto Sun)
POPs are Hung's field of work. Twelve of these pollutants were banned so far by the Stockholm convention, including several pesticides. "These compounds travel in the air and will ultimately condense and precipitate to the Earth's surface," she said. Therefore, their concentrations should be measured at different locations, in the Arctic and mid-latitudes of the globe, at the same time. This will give us information on how much of these chemicals originate from each region, transport period and what factors influence this movement."

If POPs are banned, their concentration in the air will drop. Lindane, for instance, is a pesticide that was widely used in agriculture. After banning it in North America and Europe, its concentration has declined sharply in the Arctic. "According to our research," Hung added, "we expect its present level to fall to half in seven years. T-chlordane is another pesticide used for termite control in wood buildings, lawns and crops, especially in Japan and North America. It has been banned in Canada and the United States for 30 years, and we expect it to be further reduced by half within five years. Endosulfan, not banned yet, is heavily used in cotton fields and its concentration in the Arctic air has not declined."

The Mercury Effect

Unlike POPs, mercury is a natural element and cannot be created nor destroyed. However, human activity such as forest fires and burning fuels. Climate warming does affect the cycling of mercury and thus its bioavailability.

Mercury lab onboard the Amundsen research icebreaker
In the Arctic, the highest deposition of mercury from the air to the snow/ice surface is known to occur in spring, referred to as mercury depletion event (MOEs). The mechanism involves a reaction between mercury, sea salt and sunlight that makes it easier for mercury to deposit on the ice and water surfaces. However, it can jump back to air, and scientists are trying to figure out how much mercury deposits and how much gets out.

Gary Stern
Mercury contamination is the main field of research of Dr. Gary Stern, chief scientist on the Amundsen. He studies its transport processes, accumulation in Arctic marine food webs, and the foraging behaviour of marine mammals, especially with changing sea ice trends.

"These are all affected by climate variability," he said. "In addition, hunting patterns and diets of Northerners will be affected by climate change, reflected in the availability of traditional food. For instance, less ice may lead to reduced reproduction of ringed seals, forcing northerners to consume less healthy processed foods they buy from stores."

Results from Stern's research will help assess the vulnerability of Inuit communities to climate change and the drastic effects of contaminants on their health and food security. This will contribute to developing adaptation strategies, shaping the policy for future management of contaminants emissions and supporting integrated ocean management programmes.

The Arctic, 5 August, 2008

The Second Cold War

“Yes, the Arctic is warming now, but it will be cooling again within three years,” said my friend Andrej Rubchenya, a Russian oceanographer and assistant professor at Saint Petersburg State University.

He has been studying “flaw leads” that exist along the Arctic coasts of Russia and Greenland, and now Canada aboard the Amundsen. These are navigable passageways between drift ice and fast ice attached to the shore. Calculating the amounts of ice formed annually in these water channels and using satellite data and results of other studies, he traced drift ice and calculated the time it takes to travel from Russia to Fram Strait between Greenland and Svalbard archipilago in Norway. “If ice does not melt, it travels this course in 2-6 years, driven by wind and currents,” he explained.

“There are eras of warming and eras of cooling,” added Dr. Rubchenya. “Natural forces are too strong to respond to the human factor. Carbon emissions can be a slight factor in the process of global warming. But unless a thousand nuclear bombs are detonated, I can’t imagine any human force able to encounter the mighty powers of nature.”

“Climate change is a political issue,” he concluded.

In August 2007, two Russian legislators in a small submarine planted a Russian flag, made of corrosion resistant titanium, on the seabed of the North Pole. That was another act in Russia’s claim to 1.2 million square kilometers, about half the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

In response, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced plans to build two new military bases in the Canadian Arctic. With ice melting faster than ever, the issue now is who will control the Northwest Passage and the possible huge mineral deposits buried under the Arctic floor. According to some geologists, the Arctic could hold about 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and natural gas. These resources are not easy access, however, because of the ice cover, strong waves and deep bottom.

Andrej Rubchenya onboard the Amundsen
Arctic countries that would claim rights include Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway. This new "gold rush" might pave the way to a new kind of cold war.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea determines what countries have rights to what parts of the world oceans. Coastal nations have sovereignty over 200 miles off their shores. The rest is considered international water. However, a nation can claim territory beyond this limit if the edge of its continental shelf extends further. This has started, with Russia claiming the huge Lomonosov Ridge underneath the Pole. The Danes are trying to prove that their side of the ridge (now detached) was once part of Greenland which belongs to Denmark. In this endeavour, the United States might finally ratify the UN Convention and claim the shelf extending Northward of Alaska.

The Convention also governs navigation rights, in focus now after the first-time recorded complete opening of the ice-blocked Northwest Passage in summer 2007. With global warming and ice melting, it could become a commercial navigation channel. Canada claims rights over this passage, which snakes between islands of its northern archipelago. But other maritime countries insist that it should be open to international traffic, as is the case in other strategic waterways like those in the South China Sea.

Calling on the American administration to take a step, former US Coast Guard Lt. Commander Scott Borgerson argued that "unless Washington leads the way toward a multilateral diplomatic solution, the Arctic could descend into armed conflict."

Ice chunks break and wander in the ocean
Canadian Rangers now perform a yearly patrol across Canada's northern archipelago, as part of Operation Nunalivut (this land is ours in Inuit native language. Last May, PM Stephen Harper committed to augment Canadian Forces' capacity to "protect Arctic sovereignty and security."

One new security threat? That of climate change.

Beirut, Lebanon, 14 August 2008


Last night I dreamt I was in the Arctic again.

I am back home now, safe and sound. What an incredible experience!

Going to the Arctic used to be an unattainable dream. Yet, it came true when the World Federation for Science Journalists chose me, among 14 science journalists from all over the world, to live this adventure onboard the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen. Would I have ever reached this far otherwise? May be, but by then there might not be much ice left, nor would I need an icebreaker.

Summer 2008 will be a milestone in my life. When my 6-year old niece heard I was going to the North Pole region, she asked: "Will you see Santa?" Well, I don't believe in Santa anymore. But if he really is there, I hope that in a few years he will not be rowing a boat instead of riding a reindeer-pulled sleigh.

Would the expectations of an iceless Arctic summer by 2013 turn out to be right? The Amundsen trotted on submerged ice blocks, but there were barely traces of ice floating in the Beaufort Sea were we navigated.

Many scientists, a majority, believe that global warming is caused by human actions, mainly burning fuels for industry, transportation, electricity and other purposes. Others insist that this is a stage in a natural cycle, when the Earth atmosphere warms up, but will cool again in years to come. Many people even believe this is God's wrath, punishing humanity for its disobedience and abuse of nature.

Voyaging in the Arctic for two weeks without seeing floating ice was unbelievable. Whatever the reason might be, global warming is a fact and the ice meltdown is an ongoing process. We all ought to do something about it, as individuals, institutions, governments and global community.

It was so enriching living with scientists who are doing all kinds of research, tackling the indicators and effects of climate change. I learned a lot from them, each in their specialized field. But I was most impressed by one young researcher, Marjolaine Blais, who told me: "You are doing a wonderful job! You are the link between us and the public."

"I love my work," she continued, "but I want to be a science journalist."

Application essay

Heading to the Arctic

"The Sultanate of Oman did not celebrate World Environment Day (WED) this year. On June 5, it was on a close encounter of the first kind with a hurricane. Gonu, the fiercest hurricane in the Arab peninsula since documentation started in 1945, was a live materialization of the climate change impacts ... and of WED2007 theme: "Melting Ice: A Hot Topic".

This was the lead of a feature I wrote for Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development), the leading environment magazine in the Middle East and North Africa. It was the cover story of the July 2007 issue, one of a series of features I wrote about climate change..

The Arab region (22 countries) is starting to suffer the impacts of climate change, especially longer droughts, desertification, losing ecosystems and habitats, coastal degradation and coral bleaching. There are 18,000 kilometers of inhabited Arab coasts, all prone to sea-level rise due to sea water expansion and melting ice.

Awareness of these challenges and of what should be done on the individual, community, and state levels is still limited in the region. That's why we emphasize climate change topics in each issue of our magazine.

"And that's why I wanted to join the expedition aboard the Canadian research icebreaker Amundsen: to "get first hand experience of global warming where it is unfolding the fastest," and to relay this experience to our readers throughout the Arab region. It will definitely be a fascinating cover story.

FYI: Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia (Environment & Development) is a monthly magazine, published in Beirut since 1996 and circulated throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The United Nations Environment Programme has honoured the magazine with its Global 500 Award. The Award citation described Al-Bia Wal-Tanmia as an "influential magazine that triggered an unprecedented public awareness campaign in the Middle East, bringing environmental concerns to the Arab public at large. With a circulation of 38,500 in 22 countries, the magazine is used in schools and universities, and its articles are syndicated in 10 daily newspapers. The magazine sponsors over 360 environment clubs. It created a pan-Arab environmental movement, which strongly helped place the environment on the agenda.