MAY 2005 IN

Sailing to the North Pole

Maybe someone could do a makeover show for planet Earth, because the changes taking place in the planet are every bit as dramatic as the personal changes that makeover shows demonstrate. The Earth Makeover special could start out by melting away all that ice that used to cover the northernmost part of the world.

Some 30 years ago scientists started to warn that the ice caps could theoretically melt. Already the Arctic ice cap is, for most practical purposes, gone.

The Arctic Ocean

Textbooks still say the Arctic ice cap is a permanent feature of our planet, but reality has gone ahead and done something different. Until a few years ago, a thick sheet of ice covered most of the Arctic Ocean all year long, and it was imagined that much of this ice was about where it had been since the beginning of the last ice age. The ocean surface still freezes solid in winter, but this is just ordinary sea ice; the scientists who go to measure it risk falling through. Then in spring when the sun returns, the ice breaks up and most of it melts.

The gaps in the ice will get bigger and bigger, scientists say. Why? Ice reflects away most of the sunlight that hits it. Any gap in the ice allows the water, which is much darker than ice, to absorb the sunlight. This warms the ocean and with warmer water, the ice melts faster.

How much has the Arctic Ocean melted? On Alaska’s north coast, whalers say it is difficult to find ice strong enough that they can pull a whale onto it — on most ice, the weight of the whale will break right through. A sailing ship set out to cross the Arctic Ocean — to the crew’s surprise, they succeeded on their first attempt. Scientists at a North Pole station had to be rescued when the sea ice broke up underfoot.

It is just a matter of time before an adventurer sails to the North Pole. Freighters and cruise ships may start to cross the Arctic in summer. When explorer Henry Hudson tried to find the fabled Northwest Passage, the ice kept him from going any farther than Hudson Bay. If he had made this attempt with today’s ice, he would have found his way to the Pacific with no trouble.

When is the ice cap coming back? you might ask. It appears we will have to wait for the next ice age.

Vanishing Fish

Another lasting change taking place in the ocean is the disappearance of fish. Commercial fishing has decimated fish populations along southwest Europe and eastern Canada, and scientists are warning that northwest Europe may be next. (Most fish live in the shallow water along the edges of continents.) Worse, a moratorium on catching certain species of fish has done little to revive these populations, which in many cases remain at less than one percent of historical levels.

Commercial fishing may lead to a change in the kinds of fish found in the ocean. Species of fish that form clusters, or schools as they are called, may be wiped out by commercial fishing, and perhaps could eventually be replaced by some of the more solitary species of fish, along with crustaceans. The old saying about safety in numbers may have to be rewritten.

One faint hope for some Atlantic fish is that they may flee the Atlantic for the new warmer Arctic Ocean where fishing boats may at first be reluctant to follow. Besides giving the fish a place to hide, this could also give some hope for survival for the polar bear, which faces an uncertain future deprived of its ice-cap home.

Whatever happens, this is the new-look Earth we’re looking at. The old pre-makeover Earth is not coming back.

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