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Floating ideas on the Arctic

A meeting of special envoys on climate change at Greenland may not have generated a solution but it took forward the dialogue on a possible global agreement on climate action,writes Shyam Saran,the PM’s special envoy on climate change....

Having visited the southern extremity of our planet,Antarctica,in February this year (The Sunday Express,March 8,2009),I had the rare privilege of making a very special journey to the Arctic Ocean in the far north early this month. The occasion was the fourth Greenland Dialogue initiated by the Danish Government,as a run up to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen scheduled for December this year.

A group of about 30 ministers and special envoys on climate change were invited by Danish Minister Connie Hedegaard to Ilulissat on the coast of the island of Greenland,to toss around ideas and exchange opinions on various climate-related issues in a setting framed by giant icebergs floating in the icy waste of the Arctic Ocean. Over a period of three days (July 1 to 3),the group had the opportunity to personally witness the melting of the Arctic ice cap,the subtle but perceptible changes to the fragile ecology of the world’s largest island,Greenland,and hear acclaimed scientists as well as ordinary residents give an account of changing climate phenomenon at the very top of the world.

Greenland is now a self-governing and autonomous State,while retaining a close association with Denmark. Except for a thin coastal strip in its southern extremity,the island is covered with permafrost. It is home to several large glaciers which move down into the Arctic sea through deep,carved valleys. Ilulissat,which means ‘icebergs’ in the local language,is situated at the terminus of the largest glaciers in the area,called Sermermiut Kujalleq. It is the large chunks of ice,breaking away from the glacier,that enter the Disko Bay and float into the ocean like giant pieces of sculpture. These icebergs have an incredible variety of shapes. Some are brilliant white; others have a subtle underlay of blue; still others are a mix of dull grey and sombre off-white. A cruise in the Arctic,zig-zagging among a veritable frost of icebergs,is an incredible experience,especially,as we were also rewarded with the rare sight of a couple of hump-back whales crashing through the icy waters in a gentle,almost lazy,glide.

Another highlight was a helicopter journey over the veritable river of ice and packed snow,the Sermermiut Kujalleq glacier. We flew over nearly 20 km of the glacier,which runs through a broad valley. There are now stretches of the valley sides,which are exposed as dark and grey earth due to recent melting of their snow cover. Towards the upper reaches of the glacier you can see deep fissures in the thick wall of ice,the result of warming temperatures. At a few points,there are large pools of brilliant blue water,which the scientists claim are recent phenomena.

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Our helicopter landed on a high inland peninsula overlooking the head of the glacier. On one side,one can see gigantic ice cliffs,again with deep,vertical crevices. On the other side is the ice riverbed with now large areas of high ground framing the valley,areas which until a few years ago,were covered with thick ice.

On the way to and from Ilulissat,we made a brief stopover at the town of Kangerlussuaq. Being on the southern side of Greenland,it is free of ice and snow during summer. It is located on the banks of a river flowing out to the Arctic Sea. The water is swift,grey and turgid,carrying a vast amount of sediment from the upper reaches. A short trip to the riverside was also an opportunity to stand on incredibly ancient rock structures that have emerged from the deep,molten interior of the earth in historic times. These rocks are over three billion years in age.

We had the good fortune to have as our guide one of Denmark’s renowned geo-physicists,Minik Rosing. He has done pioneering work on the geological history of Greenland and his presentation to us was educative but cautionary. There is little doubt that the Arctic ice cap is breaking up and the Greenland permafrost is thinning. The melting of Arctic Ice may well open a northern sea-passage between Europe and Asia and Europe and North America,saving thousands of kilometres for sea-borne freight. Vast deposits of valuable resources,which apparently lie buried in the Arctic seabed and under the permafrost on Greenland,may well trigger a new “gold rush”. The consequences for global climatic patterns are difficult to predict,as are the possible variations in the deep ocean currents,which play a key role in climate formation across the globe.

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The Greenland Dialogue did not generate any solutions to our climate dilemma but our approaches to a possible global agreement on climate action did come a little bit closer than before. The Greenland experience was certainly salutary,bringing home to each and every one of us,the compelling interconnectedness of our lives,of our destinies. A good and timely message to take to the climate negotiations which resume next month in Bonn.

First published on: 26-07-2009 at 12:46:42 am
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