A polar bear swimming amid melting Arctic sea ice may be one image of global warming's impact. But it could just as well be a California wildfire, a European heat wave or a Caribbean hurricane.
HANOVER, New Hampshire -- A polar bear swimming amid melting Arctic sea ice may be one image of global warming's impact. But it could just as well be a California wildfire, a European heat wave or a Caribbean hurricane.
That's because the consequences of climate change at the poles affect the whole world, said Ross Virginia, professor of environmental studies at New Hampshire's Dartmouth College and one of the organizers of a summit on Arctic science this week that will focus on global warming.
"Almost every aspect of our life is certainly connected to weather and to climate, so no one can really hide from this," Virginia said by telephone before the summit's opening session Wednesday. "We're all going to be punched by these changes. The polar regions are where it's happening first."
Earth's average temperature has risen over the last 30 years, but the world is not warming by the same amount everywhere, Virginia said.
Most of the warming takes place around the equator, and the planet's forces keep trying to distribute that heat northward and southward through ocean and air currents. And while the tropics are warming significantly, the effects of this heating are not nearly as dramatic as what happens at the poles.
In the Arctic and Antarctic regions, a rise in temperature turns ice to water. Depending on where the ice is, this melting can contribute to rising sea levels and change the composition of the world's oceans. It can affect wildlife -- like polar bears and seals that depend on sea ice -- and humans directly.
"The poles are very sensitive and they're experiencing more change compared to what the tropics are," Virginia said.
Arctic Science Summit Week, which starts Wednesday, is drawing experts from around the northern hemisphere to swap intelligence on global warming's wallop in the far north, and to figure out how the impact can be conveyed to policy makers.
NO DOUBT ABOUT HUMAN ROLE
This meeting is part of International Polar Year, a scientific and policy-making extravaganza that actually lasts until March 2009, the better to let researchers experience all seasons at both poles if they wish.
It's the fourth such polar year -- the first was in 1882-83, when the poles were largely unexplored -- but unlike previous ones, which dealt with exploration and the geophysical properties of the Arctic and Antarctica, this event takes global climate change as one of its main themes.
For most of the scientists involved in the summit, there is no doubt about the human role in global warming, so they focus on how to measure the changes and what to do about them.
There is one session on new technology for Arctic observation, especially robots and satellites that can safely look at minute changes in ice sheet thickness. Another is aimed specifically at policy challenges posed by climate change.
This focus on policy-making is in line with events in Washington, where a new Democratic majority in Congress has held almost daily hearings on global warming and its causes, with plenty of criticism for how the Bush administration has handled the issue.
A new congressional committee was named last week to focus on climate change.
Tying what happens in the Arctic to what happens at lower latitudes is nothing new in the field of polar research, though. The first International Polar Year set up 14 monitoring stations around the North Pole, and organizers talked of "a new emphasis on studying the extent to which observations in the polar regions could improve the accuracy of weather forecasts in other parts of the world."