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Published: Sunday, 11/21/2004

Arctic: The heat is on

Florida's southern tip, including the Keys, could be inundated. So could the land occupied by 17 million people of Pakistan who live less than one meter above sea level. As many as 100 aboriginal villages in Alaska could be drowned out, forcing relocations costing billions of dollars. The polar ice cap could shrink dramatically, threatening seals, polar bears, and other wildlife whose habitat is the interface between land and the Arctic ice pack.

These are just a few of the effects of global warming in the polar region noted in a report of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, funded by eight nations: the United States, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland.

The changes go beyond the normal oscillations in global temperatures that have brought on ice ages that played a key role in the formation of the Great Lakes about 12,000 years ago. It is the pace of change in the Arctic region that should cause anyone wasting away in Margaritaville to sit up and take notice.

For one thing, Margaritaville, a mythical place where Jimmy Buffett sings of "nibbling on sponge cake" and "watching the sun bake" tourists on the beach, could disappear. Holders of real estate in parts of Florida and coastal Louisiana might need oxygen tanks to make occasional visits to their properties valued currently at seven or eight figures.

This is the prospect facing the world, as reported by scientists meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. The tone of the report is not alarmist; in fact, the head of the study group, Robert Gorell, a U.S. oceanographer, says he remains optimistic that mankind can find a way to mitigate some of these trends.

The mean temperature of the Arctic polar region may increase as much as 13 degrees, causing the ice cap to retreat far from land, change ocean currents, and speed up warming elsewhere. This is because, as one scientist noted, the polar regions act as the earth's air conditioners.

While the Antarctic ice pack remains fairly solidly in the deep freeze, the fact that so much frozen water sits at the top of the world in proximity to Europe, North America, and Asiatic Russia makes the north polar region far more vulnerable.

Greenland's mile-thick ice cap contains enough water to raise the levels of the ocean by 23 feet. If so, good-bye island paradises all around the globe, good-bye Venice, stock up on water wings, and kiss a polar bear so long.

There might be some benefits for Canada and Russia. The Northwest Passage might become navigable on a regular basis. Winter wheat could be grown in more northerly latitudes. Shipping along Russia's north coast would become more feasible. These hardly balance the deleterious aspect of global warming of the polar region.

Many people dismiss all this as something future generations will have to worry about. However, if the climate assessment group's projections are accurate, the effects of the Arctic warming trend will be felt by billions of people who will be born in this century.

Washington is still officially, well, cool to the idea of warming, although some scientists see the beginning of a change in Washington.

President Bush set aside the Kyoto agreement to control greenhouse gas emissions, inadequate as it is. His presidency may yet be defined in terms of his apparent determination to roll the nation's environmental policies back to the era of the 19th century robber barons.

But the risk to the earth is real, and we all should be paying more attention.


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