The Copenhagen climate summit is in full swing. Thousands of diplomats are busy arguing with one another, surrounded by even bigger crowds of journalists (three hundred from China alone) and still bigger crowds of activists. Copenhagen is so packed that when I called my press friends covering the conference they told me "We've been forced to stay in a hotel in Sweden [the neighboring nation] and commute for two hours to the conference. Denmark is full."
I have a simple message for this giant circus: "Look North." I know that when you get that many humans together with different viewpoints they just focus on squeezing concessions out of one another and forget that you can't negotiate with the planet.
Look north and you will see the biggest and fastest change to our planet ever caused by humans. It won't go away as a result of talk or promises. The frozen Arctic seas are melting away now. At winter's end the whole top of the world--an area one and half times that of the United States--is covered with a great, gleaming dome of ice. In the summer, just half that ice used to melt away, leaving a huge area still surrounding the North Pole. Now, two-thirds of that ice is going every summer. Compared to a decade ago, we are losing an extra area of ice that is six times the size of California. The first year when all the ice in the Arctic vanishes now looks likely to arrive between 2013 and 2030--just a decade or two is left! What stronger sign of climate change could there be than the entire top of the planet turning from white ice to black water in less than a single lifetime. Is there any more dramatic wake up call! That's the conclusion I came to after many travels around the Arctic researching my book "After the Ice: Life, Death and Geopolitics in the New Arctic".
As the ice goes, so will the iconic creatures of the Arctic. Polar bears are the biggest, fiercest and most powerful land predators on Earth. When you run into one unexpectedly out on the ice, your major emotion is fear--at least until you are far enough away to safely appreciate its beauty. But this mighty predator is helpless when the ice goes. The ice gives it a safe platform to hunt seals and the seals it hunts cannot survive without ice to build dens for their pups.
Walrus are getting into big trouble too as the ice melts. On the Arctic's Pacific side, off Alaska where most of the world's walrus live, ice is vital because it carries mother and newborn pups on a safe platform across shallow, food-rich seas. Now that ice is vanishing into the far, deep North and their pups are dying from drowning, starvation and from trampling by adult walrus as they try to make an unnatural home on land.
The narwhal with its exotic long twisted tusk that inspired the myth of the unicorn will be even harder hit. It specializes in feeding beneath the ice; as the ice goes, new competitors will arrive and so will new predators, including the fearsome killer whale that hunts down whales and seals.
None of these creatures will be showing up at Copenhagen. (If the polar bears came into town they might like to snack on a few climate skeptics. That must sound mean but the skeptics would not mind at all. Even as they were being swallowed whole they would shouting: "This bear does not exist. I am not being eaten." Or: "No problem. Being eaten by a bear is just part of a natural cycle."). But we need to be aware of them as the first victims of climate change, because they will not be the last unless we act fast.
We always knew that the warming would happen first in the Arctic and then become more obvious elsewhere on the planet. It is happening. The Arctic is sending us a giant warning that is spelled out in black and white. As warming spreads further, we'll start to see it hit us hard with droughts forcing mass migrations and rising sea levels putting pressure on coastal cities and whole island nations. The time to stop squabbling and start acting is now.
To learn more about "After The Ice", and for more photographs, you can visit Alun Anderson's website.