As Arctic Ice Disappears, So Could Japan's Ice Tourism

By Andrew Moseman | August 14, 2008 12:51 pm

icemeltGlobal warming could bring a strange assortment of winners and losers. Greenland could be a winner, The New York Times says, as melting glaciers free up land once buried under ice. Northern Japan, on the other hand, might be a loser, and not just because rising seas may start to reclaim the islands.

Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, has both an ecosystem and an economy that depend on Arctic ice floating down from the Sea of Okhotsk at the eastern edge of Russia. The drift ice brings nutrients that feed phytoplankton, which form the base of the area’s ecosystem. And tourists flock there for the chance to stand on an Arctic iceberg.

However, as DISCOVER has previously noted, the amount of ice in the Arctic Ocean is on the steep decline, so much so that scientists trying to study the ice have been forced to evacuate. The Abashiri Meteorological Observatory, on Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula, hasn’t recorded an above-average level of ice in five years.

That, along with climate modelers’ dire predictions for future global warming, has ice tour guides in Hokkaido wondering whether their livelihood is melting away. And the peninsula’s marine menagerie of fish, dolphins, and sea eagles—which makes the area a UNESCO World Heritage site—will also be endangered if less and less ice comes around.

Experts don’t want to jump the gun and directly link Hokkaido’s woes to global warming, as there has always been some year-to-year variation in the ice. Those in the island’s tourism industry aren’t waiting around, though, and have started encouraging eco-tourism, hoping people will take note of the thinning ice and be moved to take more steps against global warming.

It’s hard to get around the irony, though, that bringing people to Japan to see the melting ice will burn more fossil fuels that contribute to melting ice.

Image: flickr/starlightmint?

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