The Week Ahead: Arctic change on the global agenda, a new alcohol law in Greenland, the Barents region in photographs

Residents view the first iceberg of the season as it passes the South Shore, also known as "Iceberg Alley", near Ferryland Newfoundland, Canada April 16, 2017. Picture taken April 16, 2017. (Jody Martin / Reuters file photo)
Residents view the first iceberg of the season as it passes the South Shore, also known as “Iceberg Alley,” near Ferryland Newfoundland, Canada April 16, 2017. (Jody Martin / Reuters file photo)


A near and present danger

Perhaps the best way to give scientists and others involved with addressing global warming a sense of the impact a changing climate has on the Arctic would be to hold a major international climate meeting there.

While this is often the approach taken by world leaders, keen to be photographed in the presence of a calving glacier (in and of itself not an indication of warming temperatures), jetting thousands people to the Arctic would defy regional logistics and climate logic.

Second best, then, might be to bring the Arctic to the scientists and laypeople working to address climate change, and to explain how changes wrought on the region will impact affect people at lower latitudes.

“People understand the immediacy of Arctic climate change,” says David Barber, a climate scientist, “but what people need to know is that this is an issue of relevance inside the Arctic and it is an issue for the entire planet.”

This was the message delivered by Barber and others who took part in an Arctic Council sponsored event Monday, during the first day of the annual two-week UN climate summit, held this year in Bonn, Germany.

On the grand scale, the impacts will be through changes in the long-term temperature and precipitation trends seen in various areas. Those changes, however, may be gradual — and for some, they may be beneficial.

More immediate and damaging, scientists like Barber warn, is the greater frequency of extreme weather. Though scientists haven’t yet definitively linked them, these events appear increasingly likely to be connected to global warming.

One specific effect scientists suspect is related to this is weakening of the jet stream, a fast flowing current of air in the upper atmosphere. As the jet stream slows, it forms more bends, as would develop in a slow-moving river, that allow extreme cold Arctic air to flow down over lower latitudes for extended periods.

“These effects aren’t built into the models we use to predict climate change yet, but we are starting to understand the connections,” Barber says.

Barber reckons that, given its global impact, Arctic climate change will be a part of the general discussion in Bonn. Still, he worries those who don’t specialize in the region may be deaf to the complexity of its effects.

Most, he notes, can repeat the refrain that temperatures in the Arctic are rising twice as fast as temperatures elsewhere, but, he says, not everyone will associate them with winter cold snaps. Another example: increasing amounts of sea ice at lower latitudes in some places at a time when sea ice in the central part of the Arctic is declining precipitously.

“It’s actually what we would expect to happen in a situation like this,” he says. The reason, he explains, is that, as ice melts, it fractures and gets transported with the current to lower latitudes.

“More sea ice during a warming period sounds counterintuitive, but people need to understand that this shows that climate change is already on its way,” he says.

Bringing a climate change conference to the Arctic may not be feasible, but that will not stop the region’s changing climate from showing up someplace else.

Proof positive

If the purpose of a surprise protest by Brugseni and Pissifik, Greenland’s two major grocery retailers, against proposed alcohol regulations to be taken up in that country’s national assembly Thursday was to prove the measure’s infeasibility to its backers, their plan may not have fully lived up to its goal.

Agatha Fontain, Greenland’s health minister, who introduced the legislation, instead saw Friday’s protest — which involved implementing sections of the law that would require retailers to sell alcohol only from separate sales outlets, in order to show what it would mean in practice — as proof that it was indeed feasible to do so, and to do so in short order.

Fontain, despite her glass-is-half-full take, has all along admitted that the legislation is, by design, an inconvenience that is intended at keeping alcohol out of the hands of young people, and away from those who remain unaffected by other forms of anti-drinking campaigns.

Such measures have helped Greenland lower its per-capita alcohol consumption, from a rate that, in the 1990s, was twice what Danes consumed, to a level that today is slightly under. Despite the positive trend, experts have underscored, it hides an important detail: For those who abuse alcohol, consumption is going up.

“If you’re a drinker, you are drinking a lot more,” Else Poulsen, a psychologist who heads the government’s drug and alcohol advisory board, said earlier this year.

More troubling, perhaps, is that alcohol consumption rose 5.4 percent in 2016, which the measure’s supporters fear is a sign today’s young people are beginning to drink more.

Fontain has been careful to harp on the problems alcohol causes, not alcohol itself. Individual health and social issues, like suicide and poverty, are one set of concerns. More worrisome is what happens to children when their parents drink too much. Abuse and other forms of neglect remain stubbornly high, and the government believes making booze harder to get will help mitigate some of those issues.

“Alcohol is almost always involved in cases of violence, sexual assault and child neglect,” Fontain wrote in a statement accompanying the proposed legislation.

Few dispute the need to address alcohol-related social issues, but opponents of the measure question the effectiveness of the proposed sales barriers. Instead, they say the most notable impact will be the economic effect on retailers, but other local businesses that profit from alcohol sale and advertising. Meanwhile, they point out, advertising for alcohol in football and other foreign media readily available in Greenland will not be affected.

Fontain, however, has made it clear that alcohol cannot be compared with other consumer products.

“Alcohol is a drug,” she told KNR, a broadcaster, in response to the most recent protest. “It is not a consumer good like milk or washing powder.”

Likewise, she underscores that inconveniencing the majority of Greenlanders who do not have alcohol problems is a small price to pay to help the minority who do.

Should the measure move forward Thursday, a third and final reading will be held on November 16. If it becomes law, last call for open sale and marketing will be March 1. Plenty of time for those inadvertently hit by it to shake off their hangover.

Barents observers

When the organizers of Discover Barents, a nature photography competition that will announce its winner on November 9, put out their call for entries, they were hoping for “perhaps a couple of hundred” of submissions, according to Katja Sukuvaara, of the Kainuu, Finland, regional council.

In the end, they wound up getting 1,853 submissions, between Aug. 11 and the Oct. 31 deadline.

If getting so many came as something of a surprise, the diversity of the pictures they received had been precisely what they were aiming for, Sukuvaara says.

The Barents Region covers an area similar in size to continental Europe, encompassing multiple natural environments. Submissions included images of plants, animals, trees, waterways, snow and skyscapes.

“That reflects the range of diversity we see in our environments,” Sukuvaara says. “Of course we got plenty of pictures of the northern lights. That’s quite beautiful, but rather typical.”

Occasionally, humans, or signs of our presence, make their way into the images. In some, we are a jarring interruption, in others, it is the harmony of humans and our environment that is the motive.

The winner of the event will be announced during a seminar in Kuhmo, Finland, celebrating a century of nature photography in the region and offering professional advice on how to use photography in tourism marketing.

A jury of four photographers will select the winner. Sukuvaara (who is not on the jury) says that coming up with a personal favorite is impossible, although she is keenest on those that show motion.

“But, they are all quite different,” she says.

Proving, perhaps, that the Barents is in the eye of the beholder.