The ice in Greenland is growing too thin to support dog sleds.© www.expeditiongreenland.com
Robert Correll, chairman of the Artic Climate Impact Assessment, from Washington told me, "We have seen a massive acceleration of the speed with which these glaciers are moving into the sea. The ice is moving at two meters an hour on a front five kilometers long and 1,500 meters deep. "That means that this one glacier puts enough fresh water into the sea in one day to provide drinking water for a city the size New York or London for a year."
Professor Correll, who is also director of the global change program at the Heinz Center in Washington, said the estimates of sea level rise in the IPCC report in February had been “conservative” and based on data two years old. The range of rise this century had been predicted to be 20 to 60 centimeters, but would be the upper end of this range at a minimum and some now believed it could be two meters. This would have catastrophic effects for European and U.S. coastlines.
Correll said newly invented ice penetrating radar showed that the melt water was pouring through to the bottom of the glacier creating a melt water lake 500 meters deep causing the glacier "to float on land." "These melt water rivers are lubricating the glacier, like applying oil to a surface and causing it to slide into the sea," he said. "It is causing a massive acceleration which could be catastrophic."
The glacier is now moving at 15 kilometers a year into the sea although in periodic surges it moves even faster. He has seen a surge, which he had measured as moving five kilometers in 90 minutes—an extraordinary event.
If all of Greenland melts, something we were previously assured would take thousands of years, but now could be hundreds, then sea level round the world would rise seven meters. That is without any contribution from the Antarctic, the glaciers of Alaska, the Rockies, the Himalayas, or the ocean water expanding as it warms.
So the talk of sea level rise should not be in centuries, it should be decades or perhaps even single years. For 10,000 years, during all of human civilization, sea level remained stable, leading us to believe that coastlines remained roughly in the same place. A century ago the sea began to rise one millimeter a year, 20 years ago it had reached two millimeters and this century it has risen to three millimeters. This annual rise may not seem much but add hurricane storm surges and high tides and we are soon saying good bye to a lot of coastal settlements—like the Big Apple.
The accelerated melting of giant glaciers could be catastrophic for coastal cities.
Switch forward a week from the helicopter ride to George W. Bush’s meeting of 16 of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in Washington last month and what do we hear? We hear lots of rhetoric about how, along with terrorism, climate change is the biggest threat to the Earth—although the catastrophic sea level rise facing our major coastal cities does not rate a mention.
But instead of decisive political action (as with terrorism) we get suggestions from the President of voluntary cuts in emissions, as determined by the government of each country, and then next summer another conference to discuss where we have got to—which on past form will be nowhere at all. It did not sound like the much-needed change of heart from the President, but just another delaying tactic to tide him over until his term of office ends.
The commentators in Europe are not singling out America for criticism, although it has to be said as often as possible that the U.S. is the world’s most profligate nation when it comes to fossil fuel consumption, And the U.S. has rejected the only legally binding international agreement that could do something about it. But Europeans are not doing enough either. We need convincing that our own leaders have enough political will to reach the tiny Kyoto targets that are the minimum first step to tackling this problem. The public hears the latest scientists" warnings that an 80 percent cut in greenhouse gas emissions is needed if we are to stave off catastrophic climate change, yet wait in vain for the policies needed to achieve them.
In my book, protesters wearing George Bush masks are pictured "fiddling while the Earth burns." Maybe he is just the lead violinist of the orchestra.
Paul Brown 2007
PAUL BROWN is the author of Global Warning: The Last Chance for Change. He was the environment correspondent for The Guardian newspaper for 16 years and has worked in newspaper journalism for more than 40 years. He has written extensively about climate change, population, biodiversity, pollution, energy, desertification, and ocean management. Brown has appeared in and written television documentaries on environmental issues, contributed to books on green politics, and is the author of several books on the environment.
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