In 2007, the International Polar Year, WED focused on the effects that climate change is having on polar ecosystems and communities, on other ice- and snow-covered areas of the world, and the resulting global impacts. The topic for the year was “Melting Ice – a Hot Topic?”
The logo underlines the global theme by asking a polar bear, an African farmer, a Pacific islander, an insurer and businessman, two indigenous children and ultimately ‘Yourself’ the rhetorical question whether indeed this is the topic of our time.
The main international celebrations of WED 2007 were held in the city of Tromsø, Norway, a city north of the Arctic Circle self-styled as “The Gateway to the Arctic”.
The Polar Regions are among the world’s last wilderness areas. In comparison with most other places in the world their environment is clean and large areas are relatively unspoiled. Polar environments are among the most extreme on the planet, with limited sunlight, extreme temperatures, short growing seasons, sea ice, snow cover, glaciers, tundra, and permafrost. They are rich in living and non living resources that are important to the rest of the world such as fisheries, oil and gas. The Polar Regions are also a kind of protective shield, reflecting heat back into space that would otherwise be absorbed on Earth.
Unfortunately the most dramatic evidence of climate change is also found in Polar Regions. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average. The extent and thickness of permanent Arctic sea ice is diminishing; areas of permafrost, frozen for centuries, are thawing; and ice caps in Greenland and Antarctic are melting faster than anyone anticipated.
The Arctic and Antarctica may be the Earth’s climate warning system- feeling the heat first- but it does not end there. Ocean circulation, the key driver of regional and global weather systems, is inextricably linked with melting and freezing processes in and around the poles. There is also growing concern over so-called ‘positive feedbacks’ including the potential release of massive amounts of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, which is stored in the Arctic permafrost.
However, this is not just a polar issue. It impacts climate in all regions. As sea levels rise, inhabitants of low-lying islands and coastal cities throughout the world face inundation. There are extreme weather events, anxiety about future water supplies because of the retreating glaciers, exacerbation of desertification, drought and food insecurity for those living in drylands. Society’s dependence on fossil fuels is jeopardizing social and economic progress and our future security. There are many policy and technological options to avert the impending crisis, but an increased political will is needed to use them.