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From glaciers to ice cubes....

The effects of climate change can be seen really clearly in the delicate ecosystem of the planet's ice caps, particularly the Arctic. Scientists have been startled by the speed at which their hypotheses about ice melt in the region are being proved true. Satellite images illustrate in stark detail the changing shape of the Arctic and the retreat of the ice from the 1970s to today.

it's not definite yet whether the ice melt is permanent--it could be cyclical--but what is significant is the effect of the changing Arctic surface on the rest of the environment. As Al Gore explained in An Inconvenient Truth, and as scientists keep pointing out to us, once Arctic ice starts melting, the rate is not steady, it's exponential. In other words, the more ice melts, the faster it melts....

Radiation from the sun is reflected back to the atmosphere by Arctic sea ice, keeping the Arctic cold. The light-coloured ice has what's called a high albedo, the percentage of solar radiation reflected back to space. Dark coloured water, on the other hand, has a low albedo so less radiation is reflected back and the warming effect is amplified.

Another factor in climate change is the release of carbon dioxide and methane gas into the atmosphere, leading to the "greenhouse effect". The permafrost, or soil at 0 degrees centigrade for more than two years, represents 24 per cent of the land mass in the Northern Hemisphere. For about 11,000 years, it has stayed relatively stable, with thin top layers melting in the summer months and freezing again in the winter. The permafrost stores twice as much carbon as is found in the atmosphere and now that it is melting, the release of those gasses will trap even more heat in our atmosphere.

The economic benefits of the melting Arctic, which include new, shorter shipping routes from Asia to Europe and the possibility of exploiting the natural resources of the region, will be negated by the cost of the natural disaster awaiting us.

This balance makes the current dispute, primarily between Canada and Russia, over ownership of the Arctic sea floor, particularly scary. Five nations altogether--Russia, Canada, the US, Denmark, and Norway--belong to an exclusive economic zone, which limits their territory to the 200 nautical miles off their coastlines. The seabed beyond that is considered the "heritage of all mankind" and administered by the UN International Seabed Authority. The Arctic countries, however, can appeal their limits by proving that the "continental shelf" of their territory extends further into the sea bed. Stephen Harper has made sure that Canada appeals its boundaries and other countries are sure to do the same. And neither Harper nor Vladimir Putin has bothered to wait for any UN decision. Both men have upped their countries respective military presence in the far North.

If we thought the region was facing disaster before, imagine what warfare between two well-equipped navies would do....

It's all so precious, and it's disappearing so fast. I've only been able to talk about a few important water issues during this water week. Someday, there will be a Water Month! Until then, education and a commitment to conservation are our most important tools when facing climate change. And, keeping one eye on Harper and the other one on Putin!

* Caroline & Sally: Water Crisis. Two teenage girls explain it all.

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