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Passport to the Poles

Passport to the Poles

Icebergs in the polar regionsPassport to the Poles uses the Polar First record-breaking helicopter journey by Jennifer Murray and Colin Bodill around the world via the two Polar Regions as a focus for stimulating and engaging educational resources.

Making connections

Places throughout the world are connected. We all live in unique places but what we do in one place can often have an impact elsewhere in the globe. Some of us are widely connected to other parts of the world through media and travel, for others there are fewer opportunities to connect outside their own area.

Have you ever wondered where you might be connected to? Use our making connections interactive to see where your stuff comes from. You might need to use an atlas to help you. How far has your stuff travelled to get to you, and what countries are you connected to?

Whatever our lifestyle, we all have an impact on the Polar regions. Although they are remote, what happens there can also have an impact on our lives. It is important that these connections are understood and that people are encouraged to think about their actions.

World environments

During their journey, the helicopter that Jennifer and Colin flew passed over many different natural environments. These are called biomes. Each biome is a large natural region that is home to animals and plants adapted to survive in the unique climate and conditions of that place.

Biomes are changing constantly; species adapt and change to different conditions as time passes. However, there is a concern that the speed of change is increasing, which is threatening the future of each biome. Many of these threats come from people. With more understanding of what our biomes are like, it is possible for biomes to be used sustainably so that no permanent damage occurs.

Here are some resources to help you get to know the different biomes.

Now that you know about different biomes, see if you can match up the satellite photos of biomes with their correct location along the Jennifer and Colin’s flight path on this above and below interactive. How different do you think these places will be on the ground? Use this activity sheet to help you PDF | MSWORD

Polar connections

What happens at the Poles affects us, and our lifestyles affect the Poles

Some environments in the world are particularly sensitive to all types of change - whether it is changing climate or the impact of peoples' activities. For example, very low lying coastlines are obviously particularly affected by rising sea levels. The Arctic is a very sensitive, delicate environment and slight changes in climate can cause major effects. As future global warming is expected to be particularly great in the Arctic, its effects are likely to be very severe indeed.

In Antarctic areas, global warming is predicted to be less than in the Arctic (3°c or less by 2100), but because the environment is particularly sensitive to change the impact of climate change is still likely to be great.

How does the Arctic differ from the Antarctic?

The arrangement of land and sea in the Arctic is almost opposite to that of the Antarctic. The Arctic consists of ocean surrounded by land masses and islands. The central part of the Arctic Ocean, centered on the North Pole, remains frozen throughout the year and in winter almost all the Arctic Ocean freezes. On some parts of the surrounding land there are ice sheets, the Greenland ice sheet being by far the largest.

In contrast, the Antarctic consists of a continental land mass almost entirely covered by an ice sheet surrounded by ocean. Large areas of sea surrounding the Antarctic continent freeze in winter.

Melting ice in Polar areas

Almost every time that a news report on climate change appears on the television the background pictures show melting ice in the Polar regions, usually an iceberg breaking off (calving from) a glacier into the sea. Every year ice forms from the build-up of snow, while at the same time ice melts or is lost from the ice sheets by the calving of icebergs. Global warming has increased the rate of ice loss and so the quantity of ice that is lost from ice sheets is increasingly greater than the quantity which forms from snowfall.

In Polar areas, there are two types of ice: sea ice and the glacial ice of ice sheets. It is very important to understand the difference between these two types of ice when thinking about melting ice in polar areas.

Global warming has meant that summers in Polar areas have become longer and warmer. The sea ice, which forms each winter, therefore melts earlier and so, year by year, more ice melts and the summer extent of sea ice decreases. Some scientists predict that by 2100 summer sea ice in the Arctic will disappear entirely. As far as ice sheets are concerned, longer and warmer summers accelerate melting so that the amount of ice which is lost each year exceeds the amount which forms through the build-up of snow. This is especially true with the Greenland ice sheet which is becoming thinner and is losing an increasing amount of ice through calving of icebergs.

The difference between sea ice and glacial ice

Sea ice is frozen sea water and can be up to 3 metres thick. In Polar areas large areas of sea freeze in early winter and melt in summer. Around the North Pole large areas of sea are permanently frozen. When melting takes place the ice breaks up into large drifting pieces called ice floes. Sea ice does not always have a flat surface - ridges are formed as ice is moved, sometimes against the land, by sea currents and the wind. Ice floes may be pushed together and refrozen to form an irregular surface. As sea ice is formed from the ocean's water, it will not cause sea level to rise when it melts.

The ice sheets of Antarctica, Greenland and Arctic Islands such as Spitzbergen are made up of glacial ice. Snow falls on the land and over long periods of time builds up. As the snow builds up it is compressed by the weight of the snow above and forms ice. This is how ice sheets form. The ice will gradually move outwards from the areas where it accumulates towards the surrounding sea. Much of the outward flow is concentrated into huge outlet glaciers. Where these glaciers reach the sea large pieces break off (or calve) to form icebergs. Over large lengths of the edge of Antarctica large masses of the ice sheet edge float on the sea to form ice shelves. These ice shelves may calve very large tabular (table-like) icebergs. Icebergs of all sizes will drift into warmer waters and gradually melt. Any melting of ice sheets which exceeds the build-up of snow will contribute to rising sea levels.

View our ice sheets interactive to find out more about how rising temperatures will have an impact on our ice sheets and glaciers.

The increased melting of sea ice; what will its impact be?

Increased melting of sea ice in summer will not cause sea levels to rise because sea ice is already part of the ocean, but the presence of less sea ice in summer will have a number of important effects:

  • On Arctic wildlife. In the Arctic, seals pull themselves out on to the ice in spring to give birth to their pups. The pups spend their first few weeks on the ice. Earlier melting of the sea ice will make these early weeks of life more difficult. Polar bears are an endangered species, declining in numbers. They are already being affected by the increased summer melting of sea ice. They rely on the ice as a platform from which to hunt seals, their main source of food. Although they are good swimmers, they are unable to chase seals in open water. Increasingly bears get separated from the remaining areas of ice and are stranded on land where they may not be able to obtain enough food to survive the summer. If the sea ice completely melts in summer, as some scientists predict will happen by 2100, polar bears will become extinct
  • On the Inuit way of life. Although the Inuit people of Northern Canada, the north coast of Alaska and Greenland partly follow a 21st century lifestyle, hunting is an important part of their culture and an important source of food. Hunting of some animals such as caribou is done on land, but the hunting of seals, their main source of meat, is done from the sea ice. The increased summer melting of ice reduces the length of the hunting season; also, thinner ice makes hunting and the use of dog sledges and snowmobiles more dangerous. The Inuit are allowed to hunt small numbers of polar bears and various types of whale. Such hunting will become even more of a concern to conservationists, as these animals are increasingly directly threatened by the effects of global warming. Read about the subsistence Inuit hunters (PDF)
  • Clearer sea lanes. The sea routes of Alaska and through the Canadian Arctic islands (the northwest passage) and north of Russia are only occasionally used by icebreaker ships. Less summer ice may open up new commercial sea lanes. Already, supply ships are able to reach Arctic settlements more regularly than in the past. Tourist cruises to Spitzbergen, Greenland and eastern Arctic Canada are finding access easier. The exploration of oil and other minerals in the Arctic would become easier-and this in turn would give rise to more threats to the fragile Arctic environment
  • Less ice accelerates warming. White ice and snow reflects the sun's heat. Less ice in the Arctic in the summer means that there is a greater expanse of darker coloured sea water which absorbs heat more easily and therefore adds further to the warming of the oceans
  • Changes in the food chain in Antarctica. Around Antarctica the extent of sea ice in both winter and summer has become less with global warming. Plankton (tiny plant and animal organisms) which are at the bottom of the food chain in Antarctic waters develop under the ice. Plankton are the food of krill (shrimp-like creatures) which in turn are the food of fish, birds including penguins and whales. Less sea ice reduces the supply of plankton which in turn reduces the number of krill and thus provides less food for fish, birds and whales

Melting ice sheets, rising sea levels

Global warming is already causing sea levels to rise slightly, mainly through the thermal expansion of the oceans. As the oceans warm, the water will expand in the only direction it can - upwards. In the future it is likely that the melting of ice sheets will contribute more and more to rising sea levels; huge volumes of water contained in ice sheets on land will be transferred to the sea.

The Greenland ice sheet is the most vulnerable to melting; most of it is in the northern polar zone of most rapid global warming. Until recently, the Greenland ice sheet showed a balance between snow building up and the loss of ice through melting and the calving of icebergs.

Moderate global warming has caused the Greenland ice sheet to thin through melting at the surface and more rapid flow to the edges of the sheet where the icebergs calve. Over the past few years, slightly quicker global warming has caused much more rapid melting and break up of the Greenland ice sheet than scientists had predicted. The ice sheet has continued to thin because of its surface being in contact with warmer air. However, water from melted ice has formed lakes on the surface. This water runs into large cracks or crevasses which carry it to the base of the ice sheet. Once the meltwater reaches the bottom of the ice sheet, it forces its way between the ice and the underlying rock. This makes the ice flow more easily over the rock - the water acts as a lubricant. In Western Greenland, the Jakobshavn Glacier, the largest outlet glacier from the ice sheet, now moves 40m a day, double its rate of flow 20 years ago. As the snouts (ends) of the speeded up glaciers reach the sea, they break up rapidly.

This unexpected formation of large meltwater lakes on the ice sheets and the resulting rapid flow of ice towards the sea is an example of how a small amount of global warming causes an unexpectedly large effect. It is as if a critical ‘tipping point' is reached. This idea of global warming pushing processes along to a tipping point where the effects of climate change are felt more suddenly or even when they are not expected, is a very important idea when looking at the effects of climate change.

In Antarctica the problem of a rapidly melting ice sheet is less severe than in Greenland. The balance between the build-up of snow and the loss of ice is more stable. In the Antarctic Peninsula, the mountainous finger pointing towards South America, stormier weather linked to global warming has led to increased snowfall in recent years. However, the West Antarctic ice sheet is less stable and some scientists believe that it will soon follow what is now happening in Greenland. At the edge of the Antarctic ice sheet there are several large ice shelves, something not present in Greenland. Ice shelves are formed where a very wide front of the ice sheet meets the sea does not melt, but floats out onto the sea. They gradually move forward with the pressure of ice from behind and large tabular icebergs break off. In recent years the warming of the oceans has put a greater strain on the ice shelves, resulting in very large sections breaking off. The largest break up so far has been the Larsson B ice shelf on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula. The break up and melting of ice shelves does not directly contribute to rising sea levels as they are already floating in the ocean. However, they act as dams to the glaciers behind them on the land; therefore the break up will lead to these glaciers flowing more quickly towards the sea.

Average global warming by 2100 is expected to be 3°C. It is predicted that this will lead to a rise in sea level of between 18 and 59cm. Because global warming is greater in the Arctic and there is evidence that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is greater than might be expected from even this higher level of warming, some scientists suggest that the rise in sea level will be much greater than 59cm.

Rising sea levels of up to 59cm will have a severe impact on many parts of the world. Especially vulnerable will be the low-lying densely populated coastlands such as the Ganges Delta of Bangladesh, many of the world's coastal cities and low-lying tropical islands. Although the Arctic is very sparsely populated, almost all its settlements are on the coast. Some are already being affected and others will be vulnerable in the future

Permafrost melting

Most of the land surrounding the Arctic Ocean is a subarctic environment. Much of the surface is current with tundra vegetation, a mat of low-growing shrubs, grasses, mosses and lichens. Below the surface layer of soil the ground is permanently frozen, known as permafrost. The surface layer is frozen in winter, but thaws in summer; because of the frozen layer below, water cannot drain away easily, so the surface is often boggy and will very slowly move down slopes. Because it is easily moved, the surface area is called the active layer.

The tundra areas with underlying permafrost are found in Alaska, northern Canada, areas of Greenland not covered by the ice sheet, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. As with the High Arctic, these areas are warming more than elsewhere in the world. Already warming is resulting in longer summers; plants are flowering earlier and birds lay their eggs earlier.

The most important effect of global warming in these areas is the melting of permafrost, ground which has remained frozen for thousands of years. Once permafrost begins to melt it is as if the ‘glue' holding the ground together is removed and so the ground becomes unstable. In permafrost areas many buildings are constructed on stilts which pass through the surface active layer and rest on the permafrost. Other buildings rest on concrete platforms underlain by 2m thick gravel pads, so that no thawing will take place underneath them. Roads and aircraft runways also rest on thick gravel pads for stability. If permafrost melts, buildings and roads will no longer rest on a solid base and will sink unevenly, tilt or even slip down slopes. Rivers and coastal waves will erode away unfrozen ground much more quickly.

The melting of permafrost also has a more serious long-term effect. Many areas of permafrost, especially huge areas of Siberia in Russia, consist of frozen organic matter-frozen bogs containing remains of thousands of years of plant life. When these frozen bogs melt, large quantities of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane (a product of the decayed vegetation in the bogs) are released into the atmosphere. A molecule of methane is about 20 times as effective as a greenhouse gas than a molecule of carbon dioxide. Therefore the process of global warming is accelerated by the melting of permafrost.

Find out more about Jennifer and Colin's Polar First trip.

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