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CLIMATE CHANGE: From Big Melt to Big Swamp

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Jun 5 2007 (IPS) - The Earth is going dark. From the Arctic Ocean to the Himalayan mountains to the Russian tundra, ice and snow are in rapid and permanent retreat in response to global warming, a new U.N. report said Tuesday.

Spitsbergen glacier in Norway, Arctic Ocean Credit: Mette Håven Mørk

Spitsbergen glacier in Norway, Arctic Ocean Credit: Mette Håven Mørk

Glaciers, ice sheets, sea and river ice are all melting. The areas in the northern hemisphere covered by snow and ice have declined 1.3 percent per decade for the past four decades. And that’s expected to accelerate dramatically in the coming years.

“Around the Earth, white is being replaced by dark,” said Gunnar Sander of the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromso, Norway.

The white – snow and ice – reflect sunlight while the dark – bare ground and open water – absorb the heat from sunlight, increasing the pace of global warming.

“This is affecting the heat balance of the planet,” Sander told IPS.

Hundreds of millions if not billions of people will be affected by rising sea levels, declining water supplies for drinking and agriculture, and mounting hazards caused by subsidence of currently frozen land, according to a U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) report “Global Outlook for Ice and Snow” released on World Environment Day in Tromso.

The focus of World Environment Day this year is “Melting Ice, a Hot Topic?”

An estimated 40 percent of the world’s population could be affected by loss of snow and glaciers in the mountains of Asia, the 260-page Global Outlook reported.

The Global Outlook updates information used by the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and presents in it a far more accessible and readable manner for the average person, says Sander.

Two things in the report leap out. One is that there is an enormous amount of ice and snow on the planet. At the peak of the northern hemisphere winter, 15 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow and ice. Permanently frozen ground, or permafrost, is found in both polar and alpine areas and covers about 20 percent of Earth’s land areas.

This cold region is so big and important scientists call it the cryosphere, and it is crucial to keeping the planet from overheating.

That’s the second thing – the integral role ice and snow play in climate. Determining what is going to happen as global warming melts the cryosphere keeps climate scientists up at night.

Take the Greenland ice sheet. Glaciologists have spent many years studying this vast ice sheet with the potential to raise sea levels seven metres if it melted completely. In the past five years, study after study has warned that Greenland is melting faster than predicted.

Scientists have also learned that melting begets further melting because the melt water gets under the glaciers and lubricates and thus accelerates its ride into the sea.

No one, including the hundreds of experts involved with the IPCC, knows how fast the twin forces of gravity and lubrication could potentially move.

“We haven’t figured out how to include that in our models,” Sander added. “There is a big risk there.”

A one-metre sea level rise will expose 145 million people to flooding, mainly in Asia and small island nations. Economic costs could top 950 billion dollars, the report notes.

Officially, the IPCC predicts that that kind of sea level rise is 100 years off. However, many experts like Sander say the data collected in the last year indicate it will happen sooner. Getting a better estimate needs to be a high research priority for the global community, he says.

“(W)e lack the ability to predict how much the ice sheets will in the end contribute to this over the next 10 years let alone the next 50 years – all we can say is that their potential to dramatically increase sea levels is enormous and far above the current U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predictions,” said Pal Prestud of the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo.

“There are signs that these are breaking up, not just slowly melting, and to date we do not fully understand the processes behind this,” Prestud said in a statement.

Hopefully, it won’t happen as fast as the Arctic sea ice is melting.

Temperatures in the Arctic have risen faster than anywhere else, producing a clearly visible decline in sea ice of 8.9 percent per decade. Predictions for the first summer when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free have fallen from 2100 to 2050 in recent years, then 2040 and the latest as soon as 2027, says Sander.

“The latest data that we have is truly of great concern to all of us, not least because of the implications for sea level rise,” says Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Programme.

“Secondly, it’s going to affect human beings. We need to understand how their lives, the basis of their lives are going to change fundamentally and in some cases disappear,” Steiner said in a statement.

The report also details the varied ecological impacts. Around the world, the spring break-up of river and lake ice is happening earlier and earlier. And when high-altitude bodies of frozen water melt, they can trigger avalanches and floods moving at speeds close to that of a modern anti-tank missile, the report warns.

Ice formation on rivers and lakes is also a key factor controlling biological reproduction among many animal species and changes have consequences, although they are not well understood yet.

“Catastrophic declines” in Peary caribou living on the Arctic islands of North America are a result of unprecedented winter rains turning the ground into ice. The caribou are now considered endangered, the report notes.

While scientists continue to point out the present and future impacts of climate change, universal political action is missing, Steiner said.

“Today’s report should empower the public to take their leaders to task,” Steiner said, speaking at the launch of the report in Tromso.

Despite significant impacts on their own territories, Canada and the United States emit the most climate-altering gases and do the least to curb them, according to the World Wildlife Fund’s “Climate Scorecard” released Monday in advance of the G8 summit in Germany.

The scorecards compared recent and expected emissions, and key response activities on climate change. While Germany, France and Britain topped the list, none of the G8 – the world’s richest and most industrialised countries – are doing nearly enough to reduce emissions to avoid catastrophic impacts, WWF representatives said in a statement

“This is an issue of equity between generations,” said Sander. “If we don’t dramatically reduce emissions, we will create a large, large burden on future generations to cope with.”

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