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Originally published September 4, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 4, 2008 at 1:11 AM

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Guest columnist

As goes the Arctic, so may well go the planet

The Arctic is on the front lines of global climate change.

Special to The Seattle Times

The Arctic is home to 4 million people, iconic animals such as polar bears and narwhal whales, and landscapes of stark and stunning beauty. The Arctic has captivated our imagination for hundreds of years, enticed explorers to push for the fabled Northwest Passage and the North Pole, and inspired artists and writers. Though most of us may never set foot in the Arctic, it means something to all of us, both as one of the last wild corners of our world and also as a critical component of the worldwide climate system that drives weather patterns and ocean currents that affect all of us.

The Arctic also is on the front lines of global climate change. It is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, and that warming threatens people, ecosystems, and ultimately, the planet. The most dramatic evidence of Arctic warming is the rapid loss of sea ice.

While some may herald this sea-ice decline as a boon for further development and new shipping routes, to scientists, it sounds a clear alarm about the imminent and catastrophic dangers of climate change. Recent analyses of ice loss "have scientists saying a global-warming 'tipping point' in the Arctic seems to be happening before their eyes" ["Low level of Arctic sea ice indicates a 'tipping point,' Times, News, Aug. 28].

Sea-ice loss accelerates warming of the planet. By changing the reflectance of the Arctic surface from bright ice to much darker ocean, melting ice creates additional warming, which melts more ice, and so on, and so on. Similarly, Arctic warming releases greenhouse gases from carbon that is trapped in frozen soil.

We can still leave our children an Arctic that has vibrant communities and iconic animals, and plays its vital role in regulating world climate. But the warning is clear: we must address global warming on the national level by quickly and decisively reducing our emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Otherwise, we will profoundly alter the planet because the changes now happening in the Arctic will cascade to the rest of the world.

As we have done before in facing such global challenges as World War II, the United States can and, must lead the way — especially considering that we are, by far, the largest contributor of greenhouse-gas emissions. The path forward is clear. First, each of us can take personal responsibility to reduce our own emissions of greenhouse gases. Then, we must call on our government to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions and advocate for a move toward renewable energy and sustainable living.

A recent poll showed that a majority of Washingtonians are ready to take on this challenge, with a clear majority calling for a shift to renewable energy and expressing substantial concerns about climate change in the Arctic and our oceans. This is evidence that the tide is turning and that there is momentum to overcome this enormous challenge before us.

We can and must overcome this incredible challenge through visionary leadership and personal responsibility. As goes the Arctic, so may well go the planet, and the Arctic is telling us an important story — perhaps the most important story — about our lives and our world.

It is up to us to listen. And then to act.

Jim Ayers is vice president of Oceana, an international nonprofit organization dedicated to using science, law and policy to protect the world's oceans.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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