Pole-axed: Massive threats posed to the Arctic and AntarcticaPublished by MAC on 2010-12-06
Source: Yale Environment360, others
Global warming, mining, new "Cold War" go hand in hand
The USA and Canada have markedly increased joint efforts to assert sovereignty over the Arctic sea-bed and the vast natural resources lying there.
If exploited, these could prove to be the most significant mineral lodes on the planet. See: US-Canadian Mission Set To Map Arctic Seafloor
A scientific investigation, undertaken by the two North American states earlier this year, was clearly - in major part - a response to Russia's own effort to claim rights over the region. See: Russian Arctic forces boost to secure vast mineral reserves
Now, according to independent researcher Dana Gabriel, NATO forces are being drawn into the exercise. And it's taking on worrisome, if not distinctly alarming, aspects of previous military confrontations during the "Cold War" era.
To compound this under-water "geo political game" (as Dana Gabriel describes it), a raft of other impacts are now being felt by peoples who live on the Arctic landmass itself - ones caused by oil and mining companies.
In 2008, a small Inupiat (Indigenous) village in Alaska sued ExxonMobil and 23 other fossil fuel companies, including BP and Peabody Energy, for contributing to the destruction of its territory.
In addition, the plaintiffs accused the defendants of "conspir[ing] to create false scientific debate about global warming in order to deceive the public."
The methods referred to included using "front" groups, purchasing and authoring misleading advertising, funding critics of questionable expertise, denying the scientific community's current views, and denying the effects of climate change on the Arctic.
The corporations were said to have engaged in these activities, despite that they "knew, or should have known, of the impacts of their emissions on global warming and on particularly vulnerable communities such as coastal Alaskan villages." See:
Last year, this unique case was thrown out by a judge - but the villagers have since filed an Appeal.
Christine Shearer, a researcher into human impacts on marine ecosystems, went to the Arctic to support the Inupiat's quest for justice.
In a book to be released in 2011, she describes what she found on her journey - summarised in an article below.
Meanwhile, it's not only the planet's northern polar region that is suffering from the impacts of adverse climate change.
According to scientist Robert Bindshcadler, if all the ice from streams, currently feeding just two Antarctic glaciers, were to melt and flow into the Southern Ocean, "global sea levels could increase by five feet (sic) , inundating low-lying coastal areas from Florida to Bangladesh".
NATO Arctic Security And Canadian Sovereignty In The Far North
By Dana Gabriel
24 November 2010
In many ways, the Arctic has become a geopolitical game with mixed messages being sent from all sides. There appears to be a real contradiction in what is being said and what is actually being done to safeguard sovereignty. While Arctic countries have emphasized the importance of resolving conflicting boundary claims through enhanced cooperation, at times, rhetoric has served to fuel rivalries in the resource-rich area. NATO has declared the Arctic a strategically important region with northern member nations individually or collaboratively conducting military and naval operations to showcase their capabilities.
Some have called the release of Canada's Arctic Foreign Policy statement in August, a significant shift from the Conservative government's often hostile approach in addressing sovereignty issues in the far north. The policy paper declared that, "Canada's vision for the Arctic is of a stable, rules-based region with clearly defined boundaries." It plans to pursue its interests through leadership, stewardship, diplomacy and respect for international law. Canada also seeks a more strategic engagement with the U.S. in the Arctic. Over the summer, they conducted their third joint continental shelf survey .
The U.S. and Canada are gradually moving towards merging their Arctic policies and further adopting a more North American strategy. While Canada is placing more emphasis on cooperation and appears ready to resolve boundary disputes, absent is any concrete suggestion on how to engage Russia. Both have claimed the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic as an extension of their respective continental shelves. Any aggressive moves to enforce sovereignty in the area could jeopardize future bilateral relations and lead to a possible confrontation.
During Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Arctic tour several months back, he announced support for Canada's next generation of satellites known as RADARSAT Constellation Mission . The system consists of three advanced remote sensing satellites which will increase the ability to monitor activities in the region. Harper stated, "The RADARSAT project has consistently allowed us to defend our Arctic sovereignty, protect the Arctic ecosystem, and develop our resources." He went on to say, "This new phase of RADARSAT will ensure we stay at the forefront of these priorities." Enhancing surveillance capabilities is an important part of safeguarding Canada's security and economic interests in the region.
In addition, Harper also announced a new High Arctic Research Station . The year round facility will house scientists and is intended to further, "strengthen Canada's Arctic sovereignty, promote economic and social development." The prime minister has been accused of using his annual northern treks as photo opportunities and criticized for failing to deliver on some past Arctic promises. While on his trip, Harper also focused on security issues and observed military maneuvers.
This year's Operation Nanook, an annual Canadian Forces (CF) sovereignty exercise took place from August 6 to 26 in Canada's eastern and high Arctic area. It was important as for the first time, the Canadian-led exercise included military participation from fellow NATO members, the U.S. and Denmark. Canadian Navy, Army and Air Force personnel, collaborated with naval and air assets from the U.S. Second Fleet, along with the Royal Danish Navy, performing various security drills. The joint war games were intended to, "strengthen preparedness, increase interoperability and exercise a collective response to emerging challenges in the Arctic."
In March of this year, NATO troops also participated in Exercise Cold Response which was held in Norway. It included some 9.000 soldiers from 14 countries and focused, "on cold weather maritime/amphibious operations, interoperability of expeditionary forces, and special and conventional ground operations." As Canada and other nations promote diplomacy, development and science as a means to assert sovereignty in the Arctic, at the same time they continue to expand military operations in the region.
In his article Welcome to a new era of Arctic security , Rob Huebert associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary, remarked on the significance of American and Danish participation in Canada's Operation Nanook. He stated it is, "interesting to see these three Arctic friends coming together to improve their naval combat capability in the Far North, a demonstration of force and solidarity to show the world they're serious about protecting this region." Huebert also brings Norway, another NATO member into the scenario and noted, "there seems to be a contradiction between what the four countries are doing and what they're saying. As they take expensive and challenging steps to improve their combat capability in the Arctic, they continue to assert that the region is both stable and peaceful." He goes on to say, "They may be telling their citizens that all is well in the Arctic, but their actions suggest this is not what they truly believe." Huebert also added, "It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Moscow is the target of these vigorous military exercises in the Arctic." Further control of the area is part of a broader global military agenda and there are fears of a potential showdown.
The Conservative government has used the threat of Russian air patrols in the Arctic to justify increased defense spending. In August, two CF-18 Hornet fighter jets were scrambled to shadow a pair of Russian TU-95 Bear bombers. The incident occurred on the eve of Prime Minister Harper's yearly Arctic tour. There appears to have been no real danger and the closest the Russian planes got was within 30 nautical miles of Canadian airspace before turning back. NORAD described the flights as routine and said there was no cause for alarm.
Nevertheless, the Harper government used the so-called bomber incursion to ramp up Arctic rhetoric and paint themselves as the defenders of Canada's north. Hyping up the event was purely for political reasons and further allowed them to make a case for its plans to buy 65 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets at a price tag of $16 billion. Some have warned that the acquisition could trigger an Arctic arms race .The decision to purchase the new stealth F-35's is closely tied to deeper U.S.-Canada military integration and a North American security perimeter. It reaffirms Canada's commitment to NORAD as well as NATO.
During a news conference in September, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was asked by a journalist regarding his position on NATO presence in the Arctic. He seemed uneasy by its growing role and acknowledged, "the Russian Federation watches such activity intently and with some concern. Why? Because after all it is an area of peaceful cooperation, economic cooperation, and the presence of a military factor at the very least raises additional issues." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has also questioned the need for NATO in the region.
He argued, "We do not see what benefit NATO can bring to the Arctic...I do not think NATO would be acting properly if it took upon itself the right to decide who should solve problems in the Arctic." At times, Russia has been denounced for aggressively asserting its sovereignty in the far north which some believe has prompted NATO's increased cooperation in the area. In an effort to counter NATO expansion in the Arctic, Russia is further stepping up its military exercises and continues to improve its combat capabilities in the region.
At the recent Lisbon Summit , NATO unveiled, "a new Strategic Concept that will serve as the Alliance's roadmap for the next ten years, reconfirming the commitment to defend one another against attack as the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security." Part of the new plan includes NATO and Russia working towards a strategic partnership , "with the aim of contributing to the creation of a common space of peace, security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area."
A joint statement also proclaimed that, "The NATO nations and Russia have, today, agreed, in writing, that while we face many security challenges, we pose no threat to each other." What does this all mean for the Arctic region? Just last month, senior NATO commander Admiral James G Stavridis warned that climate change and a race for resources could lead to conflict in the high north.
Arctic nations continue to assert their sovereignty through military means. Rising tensions could further escalate the militarization of the region. While the process to resolve territorial disputes and the competition to secure resources has thus far been peaceful, there is still the threat of a future armed confrontation in the Arctic.
Dana Gabriel is an activist and independent researcher. He writes about trade, globalization, sovereignty, security, as well as other issues. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org . Visit his blog site at beyourownleader.blogspot.com
My Journey Into Kivalina v. ExxonMobil et al.
By Christine Shearer
1 December 2010
In 2008, a small Inupiat village in Alaska sued ExxonMobil and 23 other fossil fuel companies including Peabody Energy and BP for contributing to the destruction of their homeland, and charged a smaller subset with deliberately creating a false debate around climate change science. You might have heard of the lawsuit-Kivalina v. ExxonMobil et al. The suit was framed by some as a David and Goliath story, with people wondering if it would be the first successful climate change claim.
Among those whose attention it caught was me. My environmental law professor read a headline about the public nuisance suit in one of our classes. Even though I had already started a dissertation, I thought, ‘I have to write about this.' That other dissertation was already forgotten.
I was particularly interested in the lawsuit for a reason: I was part of a research team assessing the biggest human impacts to marine ecosystems. We made these assessments by collecting data from hundreds of marine scientists. It was during this project that the full extent of climate change really started to wash over me-the acidification of the oceans, the destruction of coral reefs, the dangers from sea level and sea temperature rise ... These problems are current, growing, and potentially irreversible. My little brother, my family and friends, their kids-what kind of planet are we leaving them? The well-financed campaign to deny climate change no longer seemed just annoying, but reckless and unconscionable, and it was interesting to see someone holding its perpetrators accountable.
For the dissertation I figured I would just focus on the lawsuit, which raised many interesting issues in itself, as it was modeled after the suits against Big Tobacco, and had attracted some of the same lawyers. No need to actually go above the Arctic Circle, right? (I admittedly hate being cold, and global warming sounded just fine to me until I realized it did not mean the whole world would turn into Rio de Janeiro.) Luckily for me, my wise mentors told me there was no way I could write a dissertation about the lawsuit without going to Kivalina. Defeated, I reluctantly agreed.
The next step was talking to Luke Cole at the Center for Race, Poverty, and the Environment in San Francisco, part of the team who had filed Kivalina's lawsuit. Luke was a lawyer who had graduated with a Harvard Law degree and went on to work on environmental justice cases. Environmental justice refers to the concentration of hazardous activities like coal plants, oil refineries, and waste sites [pdf] near poor, working class, and communities of color, who are seen as "paths of least resistance" for locating the less savory aspects of our industrial development. Luke helped communities sift through the endless legal procedures and paperwork to challenge the continuing location of these facilities (and their harmful health and environmental effects) in their neighborhoods, even extending his work to tribal populations in Alaska. He was therefore a busy person and not exactly swimming in free time, but still offered to help me out, including meeting for lunch so we could talk about the Kivalina lawsuit.
In person, Luke explained to me why they had filed the lawsuit: "This case is an extension of the environmental justice movement. The suit is seeking to give voice to people who weren't at the table when the decisions about this particular environmental hazard were made. No one asked the people of Kivalina, y'know, ‘Would you like to have your environment ruined?' This is the only way they have of expressing themselves in the environmental justice process. It's late in the day, it's inadequate, it's a blunt tool, it's the only tool they have left."
He told me what I had to do to travel to Kivalina: take a plane to Anchorage, another plane to a town called Kotzebue, and then a cargo plane to Kivalina. Two thoughts immediately popped into my head. First, this trip would have a high carbon footprint, which struck me as slightly hypocritical, but I eventually had to write it off as justified for the greater good. And, second, a cargo plane? I suddenly had an image of myself on a flight with crates and livestock. He gave me numbers in Kivalina to make arrangements.
I said good-bye to Luke, and he told me happily that he would soon be going on an overdue vacation. Sadly, he lost his life on that trip, in a car crash, leaving behind a wife, a son, and a lot of grieving communities that he had helped during his career, including Kivalina.
After saying good-bye to Luke I dialed up some of the numbers in Kivalina he had given me. He told me I should try the school to see if I could stay there, since Kivalina does not exactly have hotels. Much of the school was out for summer vacation, however, and it was clear that the janitor had no idea what I was talking about. I called the mayor and members of the tribal council, who told me to call the city council. I called the city council.
"Hi," I said stupidly. Making these calls repeatedly was making me feel no less awkward about it. "I, uh, I'm interested in the lawsuit and was hoping I could travel to Kivalina. Is there some place I can stay?"
"Yes, possibly," the voice on the other line said.
I did not get much further than that, but booked my flight anyway, figuring I'd work it out when I got there. I just would not tell my mom that I had no idea if I had a place to stay.
On the day of my flight I was nervous, and treated the new electronic check-in at the airport like a mini-crisis-I'm already anxious, dammit, can't something be familiar? But as I flew to Anchorage, I began to get a little excited. This was like an adventure to a new place. I was going to meet Alaska Natives! Maybe they'd take me fishing, or whaling. It was all suddenly very Dances with Wolves.
I was also happy to find there was no livestock on the cargo plane, although it was definitely a tiny plane, and I am pretty sure the few of us onboard made a non-verbalized agreement to sit on opposite sides so it did not tip over. I looked out the window, amazed at the vastness of northwest Alaska, the way water interacted with the landscape, cutting into it, through it, and around it, dotted with only the occasional signs of human life.
While staring out the window at the sea the plane suddenly began to descend, as if going into the water. Then I saw it: a tiny thin strip of land, surrounded on one end by the sea and the other by a lagoon. Kivalina, population 400. The pilot looped around and landed on the north end, a dirt road that served as the landing strip.
I stepped off the plane and grabbed my bag, uncertain what to do next. To my relief a woman on an all-terrain vehicle looked at me and asked, "Christine?" I nod. "I'm Janet," she said, giving me a pleasant smile. She told me to climb on back, and we zipped toward the city center. It took only a few minutes to get there, already halfway down the island. During the ride she told me she was almost late picking me up because the city was having problems with the water. "Is there water?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant and expecting an ‘Of course.' "We'll see," she said. I gulped. I had a backpack full of food because Luke had told me there was only one small general store with very expensive items, since most of the village lived off subsistence. But it never occurred to me to bring water. Or a water purifier, since I knew a nearby mining operation had been leaching heavy metals into the village's freshwater source, another case Luke had worked on with the village.
We got to the City Council, a small, wooden, two-story building. Janet introduced me to the other City Council members, and offered me a short tour of the island. As we walked, Janet told me that the village had been advised not to talk about the lawsuit. ‘Oh great,' I thought, wondering why I was there. I wasn't even sure if there would be water, poor me. But as Janet walked me around the tiny island, I finally realized the real issue for Kivalina is not necessarily the lawsuit. It's the relocation. The island is eroding all around, and within a few decades, Kivalina will be mostly gone.
What became Kivalina was originally only a hunting ground, but like many Alaska Native villages, its seasonal inhabitants were ordered to settle down and enroll their children in school or face imprisonment. In exchange, they received basic infrastructure, a church, a health clinic, and a school. But their remoteness allowed them to carry on many of their subsistence cultural practices, making the village an interesting mix of modernity and tradition. At one point I ate walrus hand-dipped in a bowl of seal oil (quite tasty) while watching a TV channel featuring a Christian evangelist.
Some have tried to argue the island's erosion is from natural processes. But our own Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 2003 report [pdf] stating the village needed to be relocated immediately due to storm erosion from climate change, a finding backed by a 2006 Army Corps of Engineers report [pdf], which stated that Kivalina would be lost to erosion in 10 to 15 years. Kivalina traditionally enjoyed protection from storms by sea ice formation, surrounding and hardening the coastline. For the past three decades, however, the ice has been forming later and melting earlier, due to warming Arctic temperatures, leaving the shoreline vulnerable to erosion.
The need to relocate was not news to its longtime residents, who are very familiar with the land, tracing their heritage to the area back thousands of years. They had voted to move in the early 1990s but have had difficulty getting assistance, in large part because there are few U.S. policies in place to help communities relocate or "adapt" to climate change. How can we adequately prepare for something that so many political representatives will not even acknowledge is happening? People in Kivalina, however, do not have the luxury of denial. As resident David Frankson told me, "Your people don't believe in global warming because they do not see our snow, our ice, how it's melting."
Sandbags for protection of Kivalina Shoreline along the Chukchi Sea coast. Photo by Christine Shearer, August 2008.
During that first tour, Janet walked me to the coastline bordering the Chukchi Sea. It was a mess of bulldozers, sandbags, and construction workers, working endlessly to try and lengthen the shoreline, which was steadily disappearing into the sea. Rocks were being placed on the southern end to act as a buffer against storms. We walked to the lagoon end, where the current was steadily eating away at the shore, undercutting one home so severely it was beginning to have its base eroded, held up only with sandbags.
Walking around the island, it was hard to believe the situation was not dangerous. I soon found out that it was. Residents told me about a big storm that hit the tiny island in 2004, taking away a chunk of shoreline, and leaving the school principal with the sea suddenly at his doorstep. That storm was followed by a series of other storms, swallowing up more land, threatening homes and the school, and forcing the villagers to build makeshift seawalls out of whatever materials were available. They have had seawalls fail on them, and had to engage in a dangerous evacuation via all-terrain vehicles-dangerous, because there are few places for the people to actually go. Many people in Kivalina have become informal emergency management responders.
A more stable seawall began construction in 2007, offering the people a brief respite after a long period of uncertainty and anxiety. But they know their island continues to erode, which resident Margaret Baldwin describes vividly: "the village is getting narrower and narrower and it's eroding underneath, like the bottom of a tornado, like a funnel."
Relocation, therefore, remains necessary. Yet Kivalina is not much closer to being moved than the day they put relocation to a vote nearly two decades ago. Their situation was laid out in a 2009 GAO report [pdf], aptly titled, "Alaska Native villages: Limited progress has been made on relocating villages threatened by flooding and erosion."
That same year, the judge ruled on Kivalina's legal claim. It was thrown out, dismissed as a "political question" unsuitable for the courts, although it is being appealed.
Kivalina is only one of a growing number of Alaska Native villages being affected by climate change, and a growing number of worldwide communities facing the permanent loss of their homelands.
Meanwhile, it is business-as-usual around the world: Shell is trying to add to the risks already facing Alaska Natives by pushing for drilling in Arctic waters; a recent study suggests 2010 could be the largest annual carbon dioxide emissions yet; and while international officials are currently meeting for the 16th round of climate change talks-COP16, few expect a binding treaty to be agreed upon. It is clear that we cannot wait for change to happen-we all have to push for and begin making the changes we know are needed.
In the words of Kivalina tribal administrator Colleen Swan: "Our peoples' lives are in danger. And I hope people realize it, how serious this climate change problem is-it is a very serious problem. People need to be made aware of it, for their own sake."
Christine Shearer is a researcher for CoalSwarm, part of SourceWatch, and a postdoctoral scholar at the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at UC Santa Barbara. She is managing editor of Conducive, and author of the forthcoming book, "Kivalina: A Climate Change Story" (Haymarket Books, 2011).
The Warming Of Antarctica: A Citadel Of Ice Begins To Melt
By Fen Montaigne
Yale Environment 360
1 December 2010
The fringes of the coldest continent are starting to feel the heat, with the northern Antarctic Peninsula warming faster than virtually any place on Earth. These rapidly rising temperatures represent the first breach in the enormous frozen dome that holds 90 percent of the world's ice.
In 1978, when few researchers were paying attention to global warming, a prominent geologist at Ohio State University was already focused on the prospect of fossil fuel emissions trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere. His name was John H. Mercer, and when he contemplated what might be in store for the planet, his thoughts naturally gravitated to the biggest chunk of ice on Earth - Antarctica.
"If present trends in fossil fuel consumption continue..." he wrote in Nature, "a critical level of warmth will have been passed in high southern latitudes 50 years from now, and deglaciation of West Antarctica will be imminent or in progress... One of the warning signs that a dangerous warming trend is under way in Antarctica will be the breakup of ice shelves on both coasts of the Antarctic Peninsula, starting with the northernmost and extending gradually southward."
Mercer's prediction has come true, and a couple of decades before he anticipated. Since he wrote those words, eight ice shelves have fully or partially collapsed along the Antarctic Peninsula, and the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula has warmed faster than virtually any place on Earth.
The question now, as humanity pours greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate, is not whether Antarctica will begin to warm in earnest, but how rapidly. The melting of Antarctica's northernmost region - the Antarctic Peninsula - is already well underway, representing the first breach in an enormous citadel of cold that holds 90 percent of the world's ice.
Much attention has rightly been paid to the precipitous warming of the Arctic, where Arctic Ocean ice is rapidly shrinking and thinning, Greenland's large ice sheets are steadily melting, and permafrost is thawing from Alaska, to Scandinavia, to Siberia.
But none of the earth's ice zones, or cryosphere, can compare with Antarctica, which is 1 ½ times the size of the United States - including Alaska - and is almost entirely covered in ice, in places to a depth of three miles. The Antarctic accumulated this unfathomable volume of ice because it is a continent surrounded by ocean - the Southern Ocean - which acts like a great, insulating moat around the South Pole. The Arctic, by contrast, is an ocean surrounded by continents, whose landmasses moderate the polar climate.
How cold is the Antarctic? How about -128.6 degrees F cold, which is the lowest temperature ever recorded on Earth, as measured at the Soviet Antarctic base, Vostok, on July 21, 1983. The polar plateau, where legendary explorers such as Robert Falcon Scott perished, routinely records temperatures of -70 or -80 degrees F in winter. So it will be quite some time before the heart of Antarctica's vast ice dome begins to melt.
The periphery, however, is another matter, and steady warming there has the potential to raise global sea levels many feet and to affect global ocean circulation.
No place on the fringes of Antarctica has warmed with the swiftness of the Antarctic Peninsula, a crooked, 900-mile finger of land that juts toward ‘ the tip of South America. A 60-year temperature record on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, taken at a research base originally built by the British and now run by the Ukrainians, paints a stark picture: Winter temperatures have increased by 11 degrees F and annual average temperatures by 5 degrees F. Ninety percent of 244 glaciers along the western Antarctic Peninsula have retreated since 1940. Sea ice now blankets the Southern Ocean off the western Antarctic Peninsula three fewer months a year than in 1979, according to satellite data.
In addition, ice shelves - large slabs of ice that flow off the land or out of submarine basins and float atop the ocean - have been disintegrating up and down the peninsula. The most notable breakup occurred in early 2002, when several summers of warm weather heated up the surface of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, creating countless melt ponds that enabled warmer water to seep down into the ice shelf. That led in March 2002 to what's known as a "catastrophic" break-up; the ice shelf, once the size of Connecticut, shattered in a matter of days.
"We are already at the point where the changes we're seeing in this part of Antarctica are unprecedented throughout the entire period of human civilization," said Ted Scambos, the lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo.
The level of warming in Antarctica is far more severe than global warming of the past century, which has been about 1.4 degrees F. One major cause is that the warming of landmasses and oceans to the north has set up a sharper contrast with Antarctica's intense cold. That has led to a strengthening of northerly winds, pulling far warmer air down from the south Pacific and south Atlantic onto the Antarctic Peninsula.
"One of the fundamental laws of thermodynamics is that heat always goes from warm to cold," said Douglas Martinson, an oceanographer and Antarctic specialist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
The physical changes - especially the drop in sea-ice duration - have had major ecological effects. Ice-dependent organisms, including certain species of phytoplankton, are declining where sea ice is disappearing. The most important link in the Antarctic food chain - ice-dependent Antarctic krill, on which just about every seabird or marine mammal in Antarctica feeds - also appears to be in decline. (One study suggested that krill in the southwestern Atlantic sector of Antarctic waters had fallen by 80 percent, but other krill specialists think the decline is not nearly so steep.)
At the top of the Antarctic food chain, Adélie penguins are suffering where warming is most pronounced. Not only is their winter feeding platform - sea ice - shrinking. But the main components of their diet - Antarctic krill and Antarctic silverfish, both of which are ice-dependent - are in shorter supply. As a result, Adélie penguin populations in the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula have plummeted by 75 percent and more. Ice-avoiding species, such as gentoo and chinstrap penguins, are moving in.
"We are seeing the creation of a new ecosystem for which there is no precedent," said Hugh Ducklow, a phytoplankton specialist at The Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. and head of a major long-term climate change study along the western Antarctic Peninsula. "There is an entire, distinct ecosystem just living in and on the ice. So as sea ice begins to decline and then fails to form, as is now happening very rapidly, all these organisms that depend on the timing and the existence and extent of sea ice for their successful feeding and breeding will be high and dry. If the warming continues, we are eventually going to get to the point where sea ice won't form anymore, and that would be catastrophic to the system."
Not only are air temperatures rising. Changing atmospheric and oceanic circulation patterns around Antarctica have caused the deep, Antarctic Circumpolar Current to be funneled up onto the continental shelf in western Antarctica. In winter, that water can be as warm as 37 degres F, which sounds cold, but in fact is considerably warmer than the surface water - which hovers around 32 degrees F - and vastly warmer than air temperatures, especially in winter. This huge volume of relatively warm water on the continental shelf is having an enormous impact, since water holds 1,000 times more heat than air.
"This Circumpolar Current water is just blisteringly hot," said Martinson, speaking in relative terms. "The penguins down there will have to put on baggies and sunglasses!" In Martinson's mind, rising ocean temperatures have played the key role in the warming of the Antarctic Peninsula and the melting of ice shelves, glaciers, and sea ice.
Of particular concern to scientists is the effect of this warmer water on the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers, located at 75° South, below the Antarctic Peninsula. Robert Bindschadler, a senior fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center and an expert on Antarctic ice, believes that the warmer waters are melting the submerged undersides of the ice shelves attached to these glaciers, causing them to grow thinner; in places, the Pine Island Ice Shelf is thinning at a rate of 160 feet a year, and the melting is effectively loosening the grip of the Pine Island Glacier on the sea floor, causing the vast river of ice behind it to accelerate into the sea. The Pine Island Glacier is now charging into the Amundsen Sea at a rate of about two miles a year.
Bindshcadler said that if all the ice from the ice streams feeding the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers were to flow into the Southern Ocean, global sea levels could increase by five feet, inundating low-lying coastal areas from Florida to Bangladesh. Such an event, he said, could happen in the next half-century. Should the ice from the far-larger Western Antarctic Ice Sheet eventually melt, global sea levels could rise by 16 to 20 feet, according to Bindschadler and other researchers.
The biggest repository of Antarctic ice is on the polar plateau and the enormous ice sheets of East Antarctica. Although some studies have shown that most of Antarctica is cooling slightly, the most comprehensive survey to date - published last year in Nature - showed that Antarctica overall warmed 1 degree F between 1957 and 2007. Some inland areas in West Antarctica have warmed by 2.7 degrees F. That warming has extended to the Transantarctic Mountains, just several hundred miles from the South Pole.
The changing atmospheric circulation patterns around Antarctica have, in places, dragged more frigid air off the polar plateau and cooled some parts of the continent. One portion of the Ross Sea, for example, is colder and has actually seen sea ice grow in recent years.
But Antarctic climate experts say the long-term temperature trend in Antarctica is almost certainly heading straight up, which is bad news for the continent's two ice-dependent penguin species - the Adélie and the far-larger emperor, featured in the movie "March of the Penguins."
One of Antarctica's premier penguin researchers, David Ainley, and two colleagues recently forecast the impact on these two polar penguin species if global temperatures rise 2 degrees C - 3.6 degrees F - above pre-industrial levels, something that almost certainly will occur this century. They concluded that Adélie and emperor penguin colonies north of 70° South - comprising half of Antarctica's 348,000 pairs of emperor penguins and three-quarters of the continent's 2.5 million pairs of Adélies - "are in jeopardy of marked decline or disappearance, largely because of severe decreases in pack-ice coverage and, particularly for emperors, ice thickness."
Bill Fraser, who has devoted three decades of his life to studying penguins and other seabirds on the northwestern Antarctic Peninsula, has seen populations of Adélie penguins in his study area fall from more than 30,000 breeding pairs in 1975 to 5,600 pairs today. He expects Adélies to disappear in the region in his lifetime.
"They're on a decline," he said, "that has no recovery."
Fen Montaigne is senior editor of Yale Environment 360 and author of the recently published book, Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, National Geographic, Outside, Smithsonian, and other magazines.