Uncovering Frozen Secrets to Answer Key Climate Questions; for Years an Almost Fabled Shipping Route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, Global Warming Has Seen the Ice in the Northwest Passage Shrink to the Point Where It Is Now Almost Passable. Graham Henry Speaks to a Scientist Heading to the Arctic to Discover Mankind's Effect on Our Climate
AWELSH scientist is negotiating one of the most inhospitable spots on earth to take part in vital research which could determine whether climate change is being caused by humans.
Dr Anna Pienkowski, a lecturer in marine geology and palaeoceanography at Bangor University, is the only Britishbased scientist on board the Canadian "icebreaker" ship, The Amundsen, as it ploughs its way through the hostile Northwest Passage in Canada.
The region is at the forefront of research into climate change worries and the passage has, until recently, been frozen solid and blocked to shipping.
But it is now more passable during summer months as ice melts - prompting fears that accelerating man-man climate change is responsible.
Dr Pienkowski will gather information on the long-term environmental history of the passage, taking fossilised samples that could help map out the extent of ice formations going back thousands of years.
Much of her work will centre on fossilised micro-organisms preserved in marine sediment to track the history of ice formations over the last 12,000 years, using biological, chemical and physical techniques to "date" the passage's climate history.
"I want to develop a much clearer understanding of long-term environmental change in the Canadian Arctic," Dr Pienkowski said.
"We hope to establish whether the channels were fully occupied by thick glaciers or just by floating ice shelves during the last Ice Age, and what environmental changes have taken place since about 12,000 to 10,000 years ago.
"This will enable us to develop a picture of how the Northwest Passage has changed through time.
"This long-term record of climate is essential if we are to put modern climate change in a proper perspective and allow climate scientists to accurately calibrate their models predicting future climate change."
Dr Pienkowski said the Northwest Passage is a "particularly sensitive environment", responding dramatically to global climate change.
Strategically, it has the potential to become a vital shipping route between Asia and Europe if the ice continues to melt away.
The area also has the potential to become significant for oil and natural gas production.
Her colleague Professor James Scourse, a leading authority on the impact of changes in sea level and marine geology, said that Dr Pienkowski's work had the potential to "test" whether dramatic changes in sea-ice levels are man-made or natural, cyclical changes.
He said that fossilised samples from sea sediment can map what happened in previous ice ages and beyond, indicating whether the current thaw in world temperatures is cyclical.
He said: "We have got a relatively short period, a short few years of measurements for this part of the world. …