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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Diminishing ice floes raise climate alarm

Hokkaido frets as global warming encroaches on once-frigid shores

Staff writer

ABASHIRI, Hokkaido — Plowing his icebreaker, the Aurora, into drift ice 10 km off Abashiri, Hokkaido, Capt. Keiichi Hori smiles bitterly as tourists onboard cheer the crunching sound of the boat's progress.

News photo
Capt. Keiichi Hori navigates his icebreaker, the Aurora, through ice floes off Abashiri, Hokkaido. JUN HONGO PHOTO

"This is nothing. Real drift ice would not sound like this," Hori, 52, explained. Although Abashiri is known as the southernmost part of the world to experience Arctic ice floes, the 10-year skipper confirmed that drift ice has become "thinner and thinner" in recent years.

Approximately 500 km northeast of the Group of Eight summit site of Toyako, Hokkaido, residents in Abashiri have taken center stage in witnessing the toll of global warming.

Warning that the small, wintry city is not alone in being affected by a planet that is rapidly overheating, the amount and size of the ice floes have changed, "and the change came quickly in the last four to five years," Hori said.

According to statistics gathered by the Sapporo District Meteorological Observatory, Abashiri had ice floes for an average of 87 days annually between 1971 and 2000.

The ice, which drifts over 1,000 km from around the Amur River in Russia, helps create a rich oceanic environment because it fosters ice algae that make up a primary link in the ocean food chain.

But the amount of ice has dropped drastically in the last four years, and its presence declined to a mere 65 days on average between 2004 and 2007. Although there were six occasions since 1946 when floes were around for more than 110 days, this hasn't occurred in the last two decades.

A recent study by Hokkaido University also revealed that the water temperature in Okhotsk has risen sixth-tenths of a degree in the last 50 years.

Sakae Gorai, former mayor of the town of Shari in Abashiri, recalled his younger days, when there were "mountains" of drift ice that would cover the sea throughout winter.

"This is still February, but it looks like the ocean in April compared with my (childhood)," the retired politician told reporters last month.

Gorai, 71, who still resides in Shari, is amazed at the speed with which the climate and ice are changing.

"Conditions have changed so quickly in the area. (Former Prime Minister) Shinzo Abe proposed a policy target to diminish carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, but that is (too far in the future). Prime Minister (Yasuo) Fukuda should set a clear goal and motive for Japan, and lead the country in fighting global warming," Gorai said.

Launching their own campaign against global warming, the Abashiri municipal office and Okhotsk Sightseeing Federation initiated the Okhotsk Drift Ice Trust Movement last year.

News photo
Ice drifts along the shore of Abashiri, Hokkaido. JUN HONGO PHOTO

The campaign aims at reducing greenhouse gas emissions by asking hotels and inns in the region to adjust their room temperatures and by promoting the use of biodiesel on tour buses.

"Ocean sunfish were caught in the area last year. Our sea has clearly changed," said Hiroyuki Mihashi, deputy director general of the Abashiri Subprefecture Office. According to the Wikipedia, the fish prefers temperatures above 10 degrees. Local fishermen's cooperatives also have reported catching skipjack, which are more commonly seen in tropical waters.

By the end of February, 52 facilities in the area had joined the trust movement to save the ice floes, and Mihashi has pledged to promote the movement to help secure the region's "symbol."

Mihashi especially fears a vicious circle in the natural environment, in which fewer ice floes leave more of the sea exposed to sunlight, thus raising the sea temperature and driving the ice farther away.

"Global warming is visible to the residents in our area, because this is the first place in the world that drift ice will disappear due to global warming," Mihashi said. "We must raise our voices during the summit."

Masanori Ito, secretary general of the Okhotsk Sightseeing Federation, added that it has been an arduous task to educate Hokkaido residents about the negative effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Local residents take pride in their "northern hospitality" and keeping their homes warm during the winter to the point that visitors can spend a day in T-shirts, Ito explained, adding that because of the excessive use of heaters, consumption of ice cream in the prefecture does not drop even during winter.

"Local residents had a false sense of hope" that global warming would not affect the region, the 55-year-old Ito said.

But faced with the dwindling ice floes, the head of the sightseeing community is eager to promote their preservation, starting with managing waste generated from tourist activities, shutting off idling tour buses and lowering thermostats in hotels.

Ito, who created the "Save the Ice, Save the Earth" slogan for the Okhotsk Drift Ice Trust Movement, also feels it is vital that local residents voice their concerns to the world regarding the changing climate, including an appeal to delegates and media outlets participating in the July G8 summit.

"There are things you can see in Hokkaido but not in Tokyo. There is a clear sign of a global crisis right here in our city, and the message has to be sent out to the world," Ito said.

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