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ENVIRONMENT: Glacial Meltdown Speeding Up

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jul 22 2005 (IPS) - A huge Greenland glacier has suddenly accelerated dumping enormous quantities of ice and water into the North Atlantic Ocean.

After 40 years of stability, the Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier in southeastern Greenland has become one of the world’s fastest-melting glaciers, says glaciologist Gordon Hamilton from the University of Maine.

Hamilton took the first-ever direct measurements on the surface of Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier Jul. 18 and discovered it is now moving at an unglacial 38 metres per day, or 14 kilometres per year. That is nearly three times faster than it was in 2002 when a NASA plane flew over to take measurements.

"We were just floored by the change in speed," Hamilton told IPS from on board the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise off the coast of Greenland.

The Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier had also unexpectedly retreated five kilometres since 2002 after maintaining a stable position for the past 40 years.

"No one has observed anything like these changes before," he said.

Global warming has resulted in much warmer temperatures over southern Greenland in the past decade, melting the tops of the glaciers in the region and creating large melt-water lakes, Hamilton said.

But those covering the Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier disappeared in 2002. Cracks or crevices in the glacier likely drained the water to the bottom where it acts as lubricant, speeding up the glacier’s flow to the ocean, he said.

"As the warming trend migrates north, glaciers at higher latitudes in Greenland might also respond in the same way as Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier."

If the conditions that created this rapid melting of the ice and glacier acceleration are happening elsewhere it will mean sea levels around the world will rise much faster than predicted, he said.

And, all around the world, warming temperatures are in fact melting glaciers faster than ever before.

Just last fall, another group of scientists discovered that Greenland’s largest glacier, the Jakobshavn Isbrae, had also switched into fast-forward. After studying satellite data, they found that after 50 years of stability, the Jakobshavn Isbrae began to accelerate about eight years ago. Now it is racing to the sea at 13 kms a year and dumping 10 kms of ice into the sea every year.

A similar trend has been seen in the Antarctic where scientists recently identified at least six glaciers that have accelerated. The fastest of these, the Pine Island Glacier, contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by one full metre.

Only last week, other U.S. scientists revealed that sea levels have risen 2.54 centimeters (more than 1 inch) since 1995. That is twice as fast as the rate the oceans rose during the previous 50 years.

If this continues the world’s seas will rise by at least 30 to 40 cms (more than one foot) by the end of this century, causing widespread flooding and erosion of islands and low-lying coastal areas.

Melting ice is behind most of the rise, they said.

And the Earth has a lot of ice. Glaciers store about 75 percent of the world’s fresh water. If all land ice melted, sea level would rise approximately 70 metres worldwide, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, that alone would raise sea levels approximately seven metres.

"We need a lot more investigation of other Greenland glaciers to keep of track of this," Hamilton says.

With high precision GPS survey methods, it is relatively easy to do. With a good helicopter pilot who can land on sometimes treacherous glaciers, very accurate measurements can be taken from the surface in about an hour, he said.

His own direct measurements of Kangerdlugssuaq Glacier are the result of some luck and the fact that the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise had extra space on its expedition to Greenland.

"Our work is completely independent. The Greenpeace crew have been very professional," Hamilton explained.

Measurements of three other Greenland glaciers further north showed little change, which was expected because surface temperatures have not risen as much, he said.

Rising temperatures across the temperate regions of the world have resulted in the rapid melting of mountain glaciers in South and North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. Even the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, are being affected.

"The warming of the environment of the Himalayas has increased noticeably over the last 50 years," said Sir Edmund Hillary in a statement. Sir Edmund and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first to climb Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, in 1953.

"This has caused several and severe floods from glacial lakes and much disruption to the environment and local people," he said.

The famous mountaineer and others have called on the United Nations to protect Mount Everest on the U.N. List of World Heritage in Danger to force some action to protect the region. However, in a statement released Jul. 18, the World Heritage Committee declined to add it to the list but acknowledged that "the impacts of climate change are affecting many and are likely to affect many more World Heritage properties."

Even with drastic cuts in the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming, many of these mountain glaciers will vanish in the coming years, experts say.

Ski-loving Austria is taking desperate measures to protect its 925 melting glaciers by covering parts of them with blankets of white plastic or foil that keep the cold in and the heat out. The Swiss, who have lost nearly 20 percent of their glaciers in the past 10 years, are using similar methods every summer to try and slow the rate the melting.

However, "it’s not possible to affect the process in any big way," Andrea Fischer, an Innsbruck University researcher involved with the project, was reported as saying.

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