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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for the rest of the hour, we're going to be staying in the Arctic, but moving onshore to examine, as I say, another Arctic mystery.

Canadian researchers studying ponds - ponds in the Canadian High Arctic, have seen the ponds dry up in the summers over just the last several seasons.

They say these ponds have been around for thousands of years and are an important part of the Artic ecosystem. They say this is more evidence that global warming is happening and happening fast in the Arctic region.

The researchers have published their findings in this week's issue of the proceedings of the National Academy of Scientists. And for the rest of the hour, we'll be talking about this new evidence for global warming.

Our number 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK.

John Smol is the lead author of the paper on Arctic ponds. He's the director of Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research, and professor in the department of biology at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. He joins me today by phone from Resolute Bay, Canada en route to his research site in the Canadian High Arctic. Welcome to the program, Dr. Smol.

Dr. JOHN SMOL (Director, Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory; Professor of Biology, Queens University): I'm okay, thanks. Very nice to be here

FLATOW: Tell us about these ponds that you say - I mentioned that they've been here for a long period of time and now they're gone.

Dr. SMOL: Yes, it's quite startling. These are ponds that I started studying in 1983 when I was just starting out in science. And they're in the higher Arctic, though, on Ellesmere Island. So that's the last island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. And I say, well, most people don't know where Ellesmere Island is, but if you have a globe on your desk and it has a washer on it, if you lift the washer, my sampling site is usually under the washer on your globe on your desk. So that's where we're studying these ponds.

FLATOW: That's pretty high up there.

Dr. SMOL: When you go to the - sorry?

FLATOW: That's pretty high up on.

DR. SMOL: Yes, it is. Yes. We have a bit of a delay. As you know, I'm on a satellite phone. And so what - we started studying these ponds - Marianne Douglas, at the University of Alberta, and myself - because there were these small, shallow ponds, which should be very sensitive to climatic and environmental change. Shallow small sites would be more sensitive than, say, something like the Great Lakes, of course, because, you know, they would evaporate faster and so forth.

And one of the first things we did, we simply just started monitoring them. Virtually nothing was known about water quality in the high Arctic regions, because it's very hard to get to. So part of the study was just to find out what's there.

Another side to the study, though, was we took lake sediment cores. And as most people are aware of, what happens with ice cores as you go deeper down, you reconstruct history. Well, the same thing happens in lakes and ponds. As you appreciate, lakes and ponds slowly fill up with mud. You know, 24 hours a day, mud is accumulating at the bottom of the lake or a pond. In that mud is an incredible rich library of information. And in that - it's like a history book. You know, the deeper you go, the older it gets. And we can actually date how old it is, and we can look at all the fossils and the different types of indicators in this sediment.

One of the first things that we did is we found out how old these ponds were. They were there for thousands of years. Certainly some were 6,000 years old and 5,000 years old. So they're quite old, relatively speaking, for the Arctic.

And we could also show by the fossils that they were relatively stable for thousands of years. And then starting in the 1800s, late 1800s, we started seeing changes that were consistent with warming. You know, it's the first sign that these ponds were in some sort of trouble. There were early warning indicators, which, of course, the Arctic is.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SMOL: And that was one side of it. We published that about 12 years ago. It was very controversial, or maybe close to 15 years ago now. Now, I think people just generally accept that as what happened. But we also - we kept monitoring them. And every two or three years, we'd go to these ponds and we'd study the water quality and we started getting worried. After 24 years, you start to getting a long-term record.

And two things we started seeing. We saw the ponds were getting lower and lower in water level, which was a sign of possible evaporation. And we were also doing a whole sweep of water chemistry. And one of the things we measure was conductivity, which is, basically the low end of salinity. So we were measuring the salinity of the pond. And one thing we were watching - we're seeing the salinity going higher and higher as the decades passed.

And I used the analogy of putting a pot of soup on the stove. If you put a pot of soup on the stove on low heat and you take the lid off, that's much like a high Arctic pond in a warm temperature. If you keep watching your soup, the soup level gets lower and lower as some of it evaporates away. So that's exactly what's happening to the pond. If you keep tasting your soup, it gets saltier and saltier, and that's because the water is evaporating away and leaving the salts behind. That's exactly what was happening to these ponds.

And so, we got a little worried about that. And we started wondering, maybe in our lifetime or by the end of the century, will these ponds even be here with global - continued accelerated global warming?

Well, we were quite stunned when we came back last year. We came in early in July. We just don't - you know, in June, often there's still snow on the ground and ice form on these things so early in the season.

And some of our ponds that we've been monitoring for 23 years were already dry. Other ponds look like they were just about to dry up, much lower water levels. And we really thought, well, my God, now, it's really happened. And this is a major ecological threat. You'll appreciate if you were an - if you're a, say, an aquatic organism, well, no water is a big problem. I mean, this is really a major change in this ecosystem.

And it turns out that in 2006, for that part of the year, was the warmest year on record. And we had instruments in the ponds - we weren't there in 2005, but we - from our instruments we could tell they also dried up in 2005, which was the second warmest year on record. So, we linked all that together and we're suggesting now that these ponds are drying up due to accelerated global warming, which is - these shallow ponds are the most common form of surface waters in the high Arctic, which could actually be very serious.

FLATOW: So you - do you think that we've reached the tipping point there?

Dr. SMOL: Yes, I think this is a major tipping point. I think these ponds have probably gone through different, say, ecological thresholds. There were some thresholds already starting in the 1800s - 1900s, you know, early 1900s, with some warming, and that was, in some ways, they were just different ponds. More mosses were growing, you know, a different kind of ecosystem that was less ice covered. But certainly a tipping point is, especially if you're in an aquatic system, a tipping point is no longer having water. So that's a major change. And this changes everything.

I mean, this is a little outside of our area, but a lot of things depend on water. In these ponds live, for example - also to small animals, small invertebrates, including the larvae of all sorts of insects.

Well, those insects, when they mature, they fly around, that's food for birds and so forth. Either ducks and different waterfowl use the ponds for living, and, you know, if there's no water, there's no water. I mean, this is a major, major step in the ecosystem.

FLATOW: And you're pretty convinced it's due to global warming?

Dr. SMOL: Well, I think it is. I think, you know, the fact that we have the thousand years of records from our paleo data, then we have the 24 years of our monitoring data, it'll be 25 years after this summer then - and as soon as I hung up this phone, an airplane waiting for me on the run strip and we're off to our research site - we'll have the 25th year of data. And we thus, tie that together with the paleo data, and all the observations, and with the limited metrological(ph) data we have at all points, it all points in that direction that says due to warming.

FLATOW: You know, you write something very interesting in your paper. You say: In the past, researchers like us have sometimes been accused of being alarmists when we discuss climate warming. We now think we've been overly optimistic, the speed and magnitude of environmental change are worse than we even imagined, exclamation point.

Dr. SMOL: That's correct, that's in our press, and that's correct, that's a direct quote, and that's - we were - we've often still seen as we're alarmists, people like Marianne Douglas and myself would point out from this problems.

I mean, we would love to be wrong, I want to point that out. I would love to be wrong about everything I say about global warming. I can't imagine I'm wrong, there's so much data to the contrary now. I mean, mountains and mountains of data to the contrary that this is, I would say, the most serious problem facing the planet today.

FLATOW: It's interesting how you describe these ponds in past years in your paper saying, you had waited out in your hip waders. There are points now - and now it's so dry you could light them with your lighter.

Dr. SMOL: That's true. And this is especially true of the local wetlands. The ponds in the middle drying up, but they're - these ponds are surrounded by these wetlands, and these wetlands, in the early 1980s, we put on hip waders and, you know, you'd sink in up to your knees sometimes in water in these mossy areas around these ponds. Now, you could walk out there in your running shoes, and if you pick it up and you light it, it ignites immediately.

So, this is - and again, this is a little outside our area of research, but you can start seeing how all these cascading problems start happening. These, for example, these wetlands - and the ponds, too, in some extent - in the past were photosynthesizing very actively, and they were taking in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. So, in many ways, they were sink(ph) for these greenhouse gases.

Now these ponds dry up and these wetlands dry up, they start decomposing, so that - the carbon dioxide can be going back up in the atmosphere. So we - it actually amplifies the problem, so there's all sorts of potential positive feedbacks here that are all quite harmful to the environment.

FLATOW: And perhaps even releasing methane and other…

Dr. SMOL: And methane as well, CO2 methane - and yeah, there's all these possibilities. So it's - there's not a lot of good news in our three-page article.

FLATOW: Let's go to Carol(ph) in Oklahoma. Hi, Carol?

CAROL (Caller): Just a quick comment. I quite agree with your guest. I remember a few years ago, and I wish I could tie a phone to my copy, a Science article did a story about one of the legacies of the Cold War was that there are almost hundreds of pounds of photographs of decades of aerial surveillance from space of the permafrost, in what was the Soviet Arctic area. And I think it was called disappearing lakes.

Dr. SMOL: Yeah. Yeah. It was on…

CAROL: It was in a Science magazine. And that's one thing we got for our tax money - was irrefutable proof of global warning's effect. Tens of thousands of lakes had sucked into the Earth.

Dr. SMOL: Yeah, that's a very good point. That was a paper by Smith et al in Science about one or two years ago…

CAROL: Yeah.

Dr. SMOL: …and those were a little different. They were in Siberia and there's also studies done by Alaskan scientists in Alaska and other places. These are lower farther south. They're in Siberia, in places like Alaska. So these are in what they call thermacorous(ph) lakes, and these are in semi-permanent permafrost. And what's happening there they look the same, you're right, the ponds - their ponds are also disappearing, but for a completely different - for a somewhat different mechanism. It's related to global warming, but what's happening though those are underlain by ice, if you like, and what's happened is the - it's almost like pulling a plug maybe on the bathtub. It got warm enough that the ice underneath melted. And so they basically seeped through into the ground. (Unintelligible).

FLATOW: And you're saying that's not what's happening here. When we were in Alaska a few weeks ago…

Dr. SMOL: Yes.

FLATOW: …we saw the permafrost was melting and so the water was just draining down, but you're saying this is evaporating.

Dr. SMOL: Yeah, this is slightly different. Although they're both bad, they're both (unintelligible), but so we're so far north, we still have more solid permafrost underneath, though our permafrost is melting as well. But we're quite a good farther north.

Ours are - these ponds are quite different. They're excavated in granite, so they are underlain by, like, looks like if you had a, you know, a granite counter in your kitchen or something, you can see this polished granite sometimes going red across. So they're more like bowls sitting in your - in the Arctic. Whereas these - more in the south are more like, so I say, you know, you pull a bathtub plug out and they sink out from underneath. Ours is that we have very good evidence ours are evaporating.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me see if I can get one more call in. 1-800-989-8255. Gerard(ph) in Savanna. Hi, Gerard.

GERARD (Caller): Hi. I was recently in Yellowstone, and I was quite fascinated by just the change the Earth is taking over the millennia. Is it quite possible that we're in a cycle where, right now, the Earth is hospitable for the human race, but, you know, a hundred thousand years from now, or even sooner, as some scientists here suggesting, it won't be. And the reality is, there's not much humans can - are going to be able to do about this. And perhaps we should be investing our academic capital in improving the lives of people, who are here right now, maybe spend more time and money in Africa, aiding, you know, people who need food right now, instead of worrying about something that might well be inevitable.

Dr. SMOL: Well, my argument would be it's not inevitable. The fact that I still rage over environmental issues means I personally think there's still hope, as do many others. There still is time to change this.

There's no question, the climate and environment changes our natural cycles. The big difference is what's been happening in the last decades is that it is related to human activities. And because it's related to human activities, we can stop it and we can mitigate it. We just need strong commitment to doing that. And I think there's different ways that that can be done in, you know, reducing the amount of energy we use, the type of energy we use, and developing ways to capture that energy.

And, often, the countries that are going to be hit the most are places like Africa, who haven't been actually producing these greenhouse gases. So it's for their benefit - everyone's benefit, the world's benefit that we should be doing something very, very aggressively.

FLATOW: Unless we could…

Dr. SMOL: It's…

FLATOW: I'm sorry, I just have to jump in here and give a little ID and we'll come back. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Talking with John Smol, professor of biology at Queen's University, and he's talking about the disappearing ponds and the high Arctic ponds. Just - to your way of thinking, another, I guess, piece of the puzzle, huh, another sign of accelerating. And it's - and it's always so visible. We've been learning how much - how visible it really is in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

Dr. SMOL: Yes. Polar regions are especially susceptible because they have what we call positive feedback. Because they're typically covered by snow and ice, they're like a mirror. Once that snow and ice starts melting, they become dark ground. And - an analogy would be if you go on a hot day in New Jersey or something, if you put your hand on a white car and a black car in the parking lot, they'll both be hot, but the black car will be hotter because it's absorbing heat. That's exactly what's happening in the Arctic. We're shifting from that white car that's like a mirror to a black car that's absorbing. And that's why things happened so much faster up there. It's the positive feedback system.

FLATOW: So what - where do you head now? What is your next research? And how do you take this one step further?

Dr. SMOL: Yeah. Well, as soon as I hang up this phone, there's a Twin Otter outside, which is a twin prop airplane, spinning its wheels already. And I'm heading on about another three hours flight north to - back to Cape Herschel. And we are now going to monitor and see what happened this year. And of course, climate is variable. It's possible some of the ponds have filled up more this year, depending on what the weather was like.

But this is all would be very interesting, since they've dried up before, we want to see how fast were the organisms recovering, would the water chemistry be different and so forth.

And so, our goal is now to see what happens this year and also to look in other regions in the Arctic and elsewhere. The Arctic is just an early warning place. These are just the signs of what's going to be happening in many other places to come I think.

FLATOW: Well - and so, you're just going to go monitor more places now? And I didn't say just, but…

Dr. SMOL: Yeah. Well, we're going to monitor more places, but also use different methods and try and do our paleo techniques again to see, are some places changing faster, are some eco-systems more susceptible. Once you have more research done, research gives you options, and options are good. We're going to need lots of options, so options are pretty important.

FLATOW: And we would expect to see the same kind of things in other parts of the Arctic regions - in Greenland and perhaps in Asia, places like that.

Dr. SMOL: Yes. Yes. We would expect to see it now. There is some variability between climates. Some places are warmer; some places are naturally cooler because of ocean currents. But I think if we've seen this here, we should start seeing it in other regions as well.

FLATOW: Uh-huh. Well, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us. And I hope that the plane is nice and warmed up and you have a safe journey.

Prof. SMOL: Okay. My pleasure. Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

Prof. SMOL: You too.

FLATOW: John Smol is a Canada research chair in Environmental Change and director of Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Lab and professor in the Department of Biology at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

So, we've got - today, we had two satellite phones. Various luck in using them, it's quite interesting. And we're going to try to follow the lives of these researchers. Certainly, we're going to continue to follow that research vessel, the icebreaker, and its search for those geothermal vents, those thermal vents below the ocean - hydrothermal vents, I guess I should call them - and see if they find anything and keep checking back with that - the ship has a few weeks of going on that journey. We'll check in with them.

(Soundbite of credits)

If you like to write to us, send your letters to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY - 4 West, 43rd Street, Room 306, New York, New York, 10036. Or surf over to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, where we've got - well, we have kind of blogs and podcasting and Web casting and all kinds of streaming in there. Also, you can leave us your opinions there. And send us your videos. We're collecting videos, perusing our own videos of science. And looking for - we're beginning to get some of your videos and of interesting science, things - it could be nature, it could be stuff in your laboratory. Send us your videos.

Have a great weekend. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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