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Polar Winds are Spinning Faster
Scientists Would Like to Know Why

TOM PAULSON / Seattle Post-Intelligencer 29oct03

Above the North Pole is a massive maelstrom of air, a "polar vortex," that University of Washington scientists have shown is speeding up and may explain some of the dramatic changes now being observed in the Arctic environment.

"This is possibly also related to global climate change," said UW Arctic scientist James Morison. But then again, Morison noted, the increased rate of spin observed in this atmospheric whirlpool may also just be due to its natural cycle of variation.

That's what's so frustrating about scientists, said Caleb Pungowiyi, 61, a native inhabitant of the Arctic from Kotzebue, Alaska. "They're afraid to take a stand that might make them appear like they recommend some environmental policy."


Scientists studying rapid environmental changes in the Arctic are paying particular attention to an atmospheric phenomenon known as the "polar vortex." This massive, spinning swirl of winds and weather appears to be speeding up when arctic climate temperatures also increase. Researchers are studying the vortex to determine if it is a cause, or an effect, of climate change.

Pungowiyi, one of the few non-scientists at an international gathering of Arctic researchers held through tomorrow at the Bell Harbor conference center in Seattle, described how the extraordinarily warm weather in the Arctic over the past decade is disrupting fishing, animal behavior, the ice-based system of winter travel and their entire way of life.

"Our whole system is based on the cycle of nature," he said. "I keep thinking it will soon get back to normal, but it doesn't."

Why the Arctic is not normal is the primary focus of the Seattle meeting.

Organized by the National Science Foundation as part of its project SEARCH (the Study of Environmental Arctic Change), it is the largest international gathering of researchers studying a variety of disturbing changes in the Arctic such as thinning sea ice, shifts in ocean currents and disruptions of animal habitat.

Morison and his UW colleagues, widely regarded as leaders in Arctic science, helped start SEARCH with a Seattle workshop in 1997.

At that time, there had been a number of studies pointing to dramatic environmental changes in the Arctic, Morison said. But many of these findings were coming out in isolated disciplines -- in atmospheric science, oceanography or geology -- and not being put together to present a total picture.

Once these groups all started comparing notes, the UW scientist said, it was clear a concerted and collaborative effort was needed to figure out what was happening up north.

Six years later, at this first public gathering of SEARCH, they continued to compare notes -- and disagree about their interpretations, as scientists often tend to do.

Pungowiyi may have appreciated the perspective of University of Arizona paleoclimatologist Jonathan Overpeck, who called upon his colleagues to strongly advocate for reducing fossil fuel use in the hope that the Arctic can "go back to its natural state."

But Matthew Sturm, a scientist with the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Fairbanks, said the changes in the Arctic are complex, profound and likely not reversible no matter what happens at this point.

"It's like a rock that's been pushed down a hill," Sturm said. Rather than try to advocate policy, he suggested it is the scientific community's job to determine what is most likely to happen and prepare for the changes to come.

Morison tended to agree with Sturm, saying there are still too many uncertainties in much of the climate data to begin drawing hard conclusions.

There's little question the planet is experience a warming trend, he said, and that the same trend appears to be taking place in the Arctic at a much faster pace.

Figuring out precisely what is driving all these changes, Morison said, is still not as clear or simple a task as many might prefer.

Most climate change scientists, he noted, still tend to think the best place to look for evidence of global warming is in the tropical regions. Morison and his colleagues think a better place to look is in the Arctic -- especially high above at the counterclockwise swirl of winds that have been speeding up.

These changes in the polar vortex are the primary focus of the SEARCH project. As the vortex has gained speed and strength in the past decade, scientists have also observed increases in average Arctic temperatures, unprecedented bursts in the amount of plankton, jellyfish and vegetation, and changes in the arctic ocean's balance of fresh and salt water.

Figuring out what's going on may be of significance well beyond the Arctic, Morison said.

"Changes in the polar vortex will have an impact on Seattle," he said. As the polar vortex speeds up, it tends to shift the jet stream and could make the Pacific Northwest even wetter, he said.

The effect on Alaskan fisheries could be significant as well.

It is possible that the fluctuations in the polar vortex may be directly linked to global climate change as well, he said.

The polar winds may be reacting to a warming global temperature, Morison said, or may in fact be helping drive climate change by warming the arctic, melting ice and altering one of the planet's primary thermostats -- the ice cap.

"It's still sort of a chicken-and-egg question," he said.

P-I reporter Tom Paulson can be reached at 206-448-8318 or tompaulson@seattlepi.com
source: http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/local/145924_polarsci29.html 29oct03

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