IN THE ARCTIC CIRCLE -- North of Oslo, north of Longyearbyen, almost as north as North itself, the National Geographic Endeavor breaks pack ice in endless daylight through a gray-teal sea. The expedition has been cruising near Svalbard, a group of high arctic islands larger than Denmark -- in summer, a land of brown mountains streaked with snow-filled gullies, low clouds that blur distinctions of sky and land, and wide glaciers reaching the ocean in gashes of bright sky blue.
Ashore, this arctic desert is so harsh that natives wisely never settled here -- only men digging coal, trapping arctic fox and polar bear, and hunting whales were foolish enough to come. A forlorn whaling camp remains -- ruined cabins, a few shallow human graves in the permafrost (most washed away) and dozens of massive right whale skulls, still bleeding whale oil into the ground, feeding moss and low, pink flowers. Whalers searched for oil in blubber and bone to light their economy. Now the question arises: Is this last wilderness being changed by another kind of oil?
Stefan is a Swedish member of the crew who has sailed these waters for 24 years, after catching "polar fever" as a youth. When asked about the effects of warming he has witnessed, Stefan, who wanted only his first name to be used, displays a sailor's skepticism. Populations of walrus and polar bear, he believes, have been growing in strength, not declining. Ice conditions show "huge variation from one season to another," making it difficult to discern a pattern. But the local Hopen Island weather station records that the thickness of winter sea ice has shrunk by 16 inches since the 1960s. And "the glaciers," he says, "are retreating everywhere."
This desolate, grand, forgotten sea has suddenly come to the center of world attention for one reason: the pace of climate change is faster than expected. In the last 50 years as much as half of summer sea ice has gone missing. Another few decades could mean that ice disappears entirely. The absence of ice in water has little to do with raising sea levels; it is water stored on land in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets that could overfill the oceans like a brimming bathtub. But since ice acts as a kind of mirror, less ice means less reflected sunlight, which means that the arctic could heat at twice the rate of the rest of the world. And in the last five years, some of Greenland's glaciers have shown accelerated melting as well. (The Antarctic sheet seems more stable because it is more isolated from global weather patterns.)
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