Loftslagsáhrif á Noður-Atlantshafi - ráðstefna

23rd September 1998

North Atlantic Climate Impacts International Workshop on Environmental and Climate Variations and their Impact in the North Atlantic Region

Much is being done this year, the Year of the Ocean, to remind us how important the sea is for all mankind. This workshop can be regarded as Iceland's contribution to this effort. People all over the world are gaining a better understanding of the significance of the sea for all life on Earth. The sea covers 70% of the surface of the Earth, and we can certainly say the time has come for us to realise the complex influences it exerts on all living things on the planet.

Iceland lies where warm and cold currents meet, both in the sea and in the air. For this reason, all changes in the weather and climate tend to be pronounced and can have very serious consequences. We hope that our guests here from Europe and North America will be able both to learn a lot from the time they spend here and also share their knowledge with us. It is very gratifying to see how many people have accepted the invitation to attend the workshop, and I should like to extend a warm welcome to you all.

Iceland depends particularly heavily on the sea. We even have a saying: „Half our homeland is the ocean". Iceland's economic zone covers 758,000 square kilometres, nearly eight times the area of the country. Geologically speaking, Iceland lies on the border between Europe and North America, with the divide between the tectonic plates running through the country itself. Studies of ice cores drilled from the glaciers in Greenland, which have been made partly under the direction of Icelandic scientists, have indicated that the warm period which has prevailed in this region over the past eleven to twelve thousand years is the exception rather than the rule. The return of a glacial period, which could take a relatively short time, could mean a complete change in the basis of our existence.

The explanation for the rapid changes between warm and cold periods is believed to lie in the currents of the earth's oceans, in particular the Gulf Stream and the changes in its course in these northerly latitudes. Without the Gulf Stream, Iceland would be uninhabitable, and changes in its flow would have an effect all over the globe. Man has not yet fully understood the great natural forces at work in the sea, for example the deep water formation to the north of Iceland and off southern Greenland. Now, for the first time, we face the possibility that the release of gases into the atmosphere by man could have an effect on the ocean currents and on the temperature on earth.

As I understand it, there are three main topics to be dealt with at your meeting: First, climatic and environmental changes in the North Atlantic as measured in decades and centuries; second, the influence of those changes on the biosphere and third, how local variations are to be assessed by research and models. As I said before, it is hard for us Icelanders to distinguish between the island we inhabit and the North Atlantic. Our ancestors settled here about 1,100 years ago, having sailed from Norway, and two centuries later some of them moved on to Greenland and North America. In the year 2000 we will be celebrating the 1,000th anniversary of the discovery of North America by Leifur Eiríksson. These discoveries, which are recorded in the Sagas, lie at the heart of our culture and national consciousness. All of them were made via the medium of the ocean, and the area traversed by those brave seafarers forms a large part of the scenario of your workshop. The Viking settlements in Greenland came to an abrupt end, and no satisfactory explanation of how this happened has yet been advanced. One theory is that the climate cooled down to such an extent that the settlers emigrated. Icelanders certainly have an innate understanding of the fact that man must bow to the overwhelming might of nature, and if we are considering the climate in these latitudes, then cold is obviously a more frightening prospect than heat.

But it is vital that we should not simply concentrate on what we find frightening. All declarations about global climatic change must be based on good reasoning and reliable studies.

The aim of this workshop is to enable leading scientists to examine each other ,s reasoning and lay the foundations for further research. When it was being prepared, there was felt to be great interest in both Europe and North America for using this opportunity for this purpose.

I would like to express our thanks to the National Science Foundation of America and the Commission of the European Union for their contribution and co-operation in preparing the workshop.

I wish you all the best in your deliberations