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SCIENCE-EUROPE: New Satellite for Measuring Polar Ice Melt

Julio Godoy* - Tierramérica

PARIS, Oct 21 2005 (IPS) - The failed launch of the European CryoSat II satellite earlier this month is an incalculable loss for climate change research, which requires the latest information about the melting of the polar ice caps caused by global warming, said scientists interviewed by Tierramérica.

“Meteorological research needs accurate data, obtained over a long period, about the condition of the ice at the poles, and the CryoSat mission was precisely to study the changes in the volume of the glacier mass in the Arctic Ocean,” said Erich Roeckner, scientific director of the climate model department at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, in Hamburg, Germany.

“What the scientific community has been able to do so far is study the surface of the ice at the poles. But we don’t have sufficient information about the changes in volume,” Roeckner told Tierramérica.

That was the task of CryoSat, the satellite of the European Space Agency, ESA, launched on Oct. 8 from the Russian cosmodrome Plesetsk, some 800 km northeast of Moscow.

But an error in the launch sequence literally threw to the ground the last six years of ESA efforts.

Franco Bonafina, ESA spokesman in Paris, explained that “the second stage (of the launch) occurred normally, until the moment when the main engine was going to turn off. But an error in a command from the on-board flight control system left the engine operating until the fuel ran out.”

So the separation of the rocket between the second and third stages, which should have placed the CryoSat in a polar orbit, did not take place. And the satellite fell to earth near Greenland.

Bonafina assured that ESA will continue the CryoSat programme. “In December, we will require that the European member states make a new financial contribution to maintain the programme and launch a CryoSat II within three years.”

The ESA needs a special budget for this second attempt, worth 70 million to 80 million euros (85 million to 100 million dollars), said Bonafina. “That was the cost of the construction of CryoSat I,” and the expenditures for the overall programme grew to 136 million euros, he said.

All of the test exercises carried out since 1999 were successful, and the second mission will benefit from the knowledge accumulated over those six years, said the ESA spokesman.

The lost satellite had two radar antennae for measuring the exact surface areas of the glacier masses of surrounding the North Pole over the next three years, as well as calculating exactly their volume, in order to determine the types of changes the ice undergoes: if it is melting, and at what rate.

With this information, CryoSat would have contributed to explaining the relationship between the melting of the polar ice caps and the rising sea levels.

Jens Hesselbjerg Christensen, of the Denmark Meteorology Institute, told Tierramérica that “the study of melting in the Arctic Ocean is an especially critical point in the study of climate change.”

That is why the scientific community awaited the results of the CryoSat mission with such great expectations, Christensen said.

The Danish scientist noted that in 2004 the Institute participated in elaborating the report “Impacts of a Warming Arctic”, published by the International Arctic Scientific Committee, a non-governmental institution dedicated to studying that region.

According to the report, the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere, caused by the accumulation of what are known as greenhouse gases, will especially affect the regions in the Northern Hemisphere, and the effects will be most dramatic in the areas closest to the Arctic Ocean.

One of the study’s conclusions is that the average temperature will increase by at least seven degrees Celsius in the northernmost extreme of Greenland, while the increase would be three degrees in Denmark.

According to Christensen, the data from the satellite would have been useful for verifying the accuracy and probability of scientific predictions like these. “Having high quality data like what the CryoSat could have obtained would be very valuable – especially over a long period – for testing our predictions.”

In the opinion of Roeckner, from the Max Planck Institute, the next CryoSat mission should be longer than three years.

“The ice masses at the poles can remain stable over long periods, and the changes occur suddenly,” he explained. “That is why it’s necessary to measure the volume of ice over a relatively long time, in any case, more than three years, in order to determine if the glaciers are undergoing changes, and at what rate.”

Some of the predicted effects of global warming are already evident, Roeckner added.

In a Max Planck Institute study that will be presented to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Roeckner and his colleagues report that the increase in the sea level over the past 20 years is twice as much as the increase recorded throughout the entire 20th century.

“This is definitive data, extremely dramatic, and not an extrapolation,” Roeckner said.

The study predicts a rise in sea level of up to 43 centimetres, long periods of drought followed by torrential rains and flooding, and a continued increase in the planet’s average temperature, which could reach as much as 10 degrees Celsius in the Arctic.

“If the climate trends observed today continue, around the year 2100 the North Pole will have no ice in the summer,” said Roeckner.

(* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent. Originally published Oct. 15 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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