Disappearing ice sends a warning for global climate systems

Press release - December 5, 2003
Ice in the polar regions, Greenland and in glaciers around the world is melting at an alarming rate as global temperatures increase, and could have radical implications for the future global climate,according to an upcoming book edited by glaciologists Dr Jonathan Bamber and Dr Anthony Payne, of Bristol University.

The book "Mass Balance of the Cryosphere", written by a team of 23 scientists examines the state of the frozen water in the world, looking at the Arctic and Antarctic regions, Greenland, glaciers and sea ice. The cryosphere comprises all the frozen water and soil on the surface of the Earth, and is an important indicator of short- and long-term climate change.

"In the Arctic, Greenland, West Antarctic and in glaciers globally, ice and snow levels are generally in retreat, and the scientific consensus that average global temperatures will continue to increase over the next century means that the risk to these already climatically sensitive areas is increasing," said Dr Bamber, speaking at the Kyoto Protocol talks in Milan.

"Many people don't realise that there is much more at risk than simply a loss of pristine wilderness. For example the ocean currents that give Europe its relatively mild climate could be disrupted by fresh water influxes from melting ice in the Arctic and the Gulf Stream may slow down or even stop."

"If a dramatic change to the cryosphere takes place, it could trigger rapid and catastrophic changes to the global climate - enough to alter the current climate as we know it."

"The level of scientific understanding about how global temperature increase affects snow and ice is constantly improving and it appears that our estimates of how rapidly the crysophere responds to climate change have been underestimated in the past . And that means it's probably going to be a lot worse than we understand it now."

Steve Sawyer, Greenpeace International political director warned that the science of climate change could not be ignored.

"The melting ice is a clear signal of the consequences of the failure of governments to live up to their obligations under the Climate Convention to avoid dangerous climate change," said Sawyer. "Climate change is upon us, and the US, Australia and Russia's failure to take action is immoral, illegal, and a declaration of war on future generations and the poor in the developing world."

Key Findings

* The amount of Arctic summer sea ice is has reduced dramatically in the past 20 years and could disappear completely within an estimated 100 years.

* Globally mountain and alpine glaciers everywhere are losing mass, except for a few glaciers in Europe that are not retreating. The rate of retreat is expected to accelerate over the next Century.

* The Greenland ice sheet - the biggest ice mass in the Northern Hemisphere - is losing mass from around its margins. Some climate models predict it could lose half its mass in the next 500-1000 years, contributing 3 m to global sea level rise.

* Evidence indicates that the some of the changes being seen in the cryosphere are related to the underlying anthropogenic (man-made) component of global warming.

Implications

* The implications of the decline of the cryosphere are far reaching. These include risks of:

* Increased fresh water influxes from the Arctic which could trigger a slow down or diversion of the thermohaline circulation of the North Atlantic (Gulf Stream) that helps give most of Europe its relatively mild climate. In turn this could impact other sea currents and temperatures around the globe.

* Global sea level rise measurable in metres, depending on how much of the cryosphere is lost. A sea level rise of only 1.5m would displace up to 17million people in Bangladesh alone.

* Increased moisture fluxes in the Arctic and Northern European atmosphere, resulting in increased rainfall and serious changes to the climate.

* Accelerated warming in the Arctic due to the strong feedback between snow cover and absorption of solar radiation.

* Loss of habitat for Arctic animals such as polar bears, seals and other large predators.

* Reduction of glacier meltwater, which in many parts of the world provides water for human consumption, agriculture and hydro-electricity.

VVPR info: A video clip reel featuring Dr Bamber is available on request. Contact Martin Atkin on +31 6 2700 0057.

Notes: Visit www.greenpeace.org for more information including background briefing.Visit http://books.cambridge.org/0521808952.htm for details on the book Mass Balance of the Cryosphere, published by Cambridge University Press.For webcasting of the press conference at COP9 visit http://unfccc.int/cop9/

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