Climate change – Jimmy Cornell’s personal view

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Tuvalu, South Pacific: “This used to be our planting field. Now it is regularly flooded by the tide.”
Scenes from Tuvalu, South Pacific

Much has been written about this phenomenon and few sailors would disagree that global weather conditions appear to be undergoing a radical change.

This is also the irrefutable conclusion of the recently published report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its main conclusion is that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea level has risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases (CO2) have increased. The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature show a warming of 0.85°C over the period 1880–2012.

UK floods
Bangladesh land erosion

Speaking from the point of view of a sailor, what I believe is no longer acceptable is to deny that there has been a significant change in weather patterns during the last decades. This has been marked by longer tropical storm seasons, violent storms in what used to be regarded as the safe season, the absence of steady trade winds even on such previously reliable routes as that between South Africa and St Helena, heavy rainfall and floods in countries where such phenomena were not usual, and a visible reduction in the Arctic icecap.

Although some people still refuse to take notice of what scientists and meteorologists have been saying for many years, weather patterns are changing and there is no longer any excuse for not taking these warnings seriously. This affects sailors on small boats perhaps more than anyone else, so these warnings should be heeded and we should be even more cautious than in the past.

There are still many, including some scientists, who refuse to accept that climate change is a direct result of human activity, and insist that it is a cyclic phenomenon that has occurred repeatedly in the history of the planet. This was an argument raised at many of the presentations that I have held during the last year to promote the Blue Planet Odyssey round the world rally. My answer was always the same: as far as we sailors are concerned climate change is happening, and whether it is the result of human activity or a natural phenomenon, is an entirely irrelevant argument. What really matters is that global weather conditions are changing.

Some of the changes are becoming increasingly evident: the Arctic icecap is melting at an unprecedented rate, the Northwest Passage has been free of ice for several summers, extra-seasonal tropical storms are more common and the tropical storm seasons themselves are less clearly defined and becoming more active.

Tropical storms have affected areas where they had never occurred before: hurricane Catarina off Brazil in 2004 and hurricane Delta in the Canaries in 2005. In the South Pacific the cyclone seasons now last longer than in the past, and in the Coral Sea extra-seasonal cyclones have been recorded as late as June and even July. In the North Pacific the force of typhoons seems to be on the increase, with some super-typhoons having gusts of close to 200 knots.

The 2010 North Atlantic hurricane season was exceptionally active with 19 named tropical storms, 12 hurricanes and five intense hurricanes making 2010 the third most active season since records began in 1851. Another remarkable feature of 2010 was that three major hurricanes occurred in unprecedented locations. Julia was the easternmost major hurricane on record as it developed close to the Canary Islands, Karl was the southernmost major hurricane on record in the Gulf of Mexico, and Earl was one of the strongest hurricanes to reach so far north. The most damaging hurricane was Thomas which devastated St Lucia and caused many fatalities. It was unprecedented for a hurricane to hit so far south in the Lesser Antilles and so late in the season (29–31 October).

The 2012 season was just as active with 18 named hurricanes, among them Superstorm Sandy, which was the most destructive hurricane of that season.

Superstorm Sandy

My personal concern for the state of the oceans is supported by my own observations during four decades of roaming the oceans of the world, as I noticed the disastrous effects of climate change in places like Tuvalu, which is threatened to disappear before the end of this century, and visible changes in Antarctica between my two visits there.

During my second visit to Antarctica we sailed past many impressive glaciers This area used to be covered by the remains of an old glacier, but on my subsequent visit it was covered in moss. Is it a sign of climate change?

I believe strongly that every one of us has the duty to do something for the planet and this is why I decided to launch the Blue Planet Odyssey whose aim is to raise awareness of the consequences of climate change. I realised that there was no better way to prove that the climate is indeed changing than by sailing through the Northwest Passage.

Since 1979 the Arctic icecap has shrunk by more than 20 percent.

In the history of exploration the Northwest Passage has been one of the greatest challenges faced by seafarers with more failed attempts and tragic losses of countless lives than any other place on earth. Although the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen managed to complete a transit between 1903 and 1906, he could only do it by spending two winters in the Arctic. It is only in the last dozen years that a one-season transit has become possible and it is due to climate change, with longer and warmer summers and the resulting gradual shrinking of the Arctic icecap.

So in summer of 2014 I shall attempt to transit the Northwest Passage as part of this global event, and thus show to those who still have doubts about climate change that this is not a myth, but reality.

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