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Dramatic Change In West Antarctic Ice
Could Produce 16ft Rise In Sea Levels

by Michael McCarthy, February 2, 2005

British scientists have discovered a new threat to the world which may be a result of global warming. Researchers from the Cambridge-based British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have discovered that a massive Antarctic ice sheet previously assumed to be stable may be starting to disintegrate, a conference on climate change heard yesterday. Its collapse would raise sea levels around the earth by more than 16 feet.

BAS staff are carrying out urgent measurements of the remote points in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) where they have found ice to be flowing into the sea at the enormous rate of 250 cubic kilometres a year, a discharge alone that is raising global sea levels by a fifth of a millimetre a year.

Professor Chris Rapley, the BAS director, told the conference at the UK Meteorological Office in Exeter, which was attended by scientists from all over the world, that their discovery had reactivated worries about the ice sheet's collapse.

Only four years ago, in the last report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), worries that the ice sheet was disintegrating were firmly dismissed.

Professor Rapley said: "The last IPCC report characterised Antarctica as a slumbering giant in terms of climate change. I would say it is now an awakened giant. There is real concern."

He added: "The previous view was that WAIS would not collapse before the year 2100. We now have to revise that judgement. We cannot be so sanguine." Collapse of the WAIS would be a disaster, putting enormous chunks of low-lying, desperately poor countries such as Bangladesh under water - not to mention much of southern England.

The conference has been called by Tony Blair as part of Britain's efforts to increase the pace of international action on climate change, in a year when the UK is heading the G8 group of industrialised nations and the European Union.

Mr Blair has asked it to explore the question of how much climate change the world can take before the consequences are catastrophic for human society and ecosystems.

Yesterday, it heard several alarming new warnings of possible climate-related catastrophic events, including the failure of the Gulf Stream, which keeps the British Isles warm, and the melting of the ice sheet covering Greenland.

But it was the revelations of Professor Rapley, head of one of the world's most respected scientific bodies, which were the most dramatic, as they reopened a concern many scientists assumed had been laid to rest.

Antarctica as a whole is a land covered by very thick ice, but the ice sheet covering the eastern half of the continent is very stable as it sits on rocks that are well above sea level.

Worries about the ice covering the western half first surfaced more than 25 years ago when it was realised that the base rocks are actually well below the level of the sea.

In some circumstances, it was feared, such as a melting of the edge of the ice sheet from rising temperatures, sea water could get under it and eventually lead to its collapse.

Yet the 2001 IPCC report, the principal consensus view of the international community of climate scientists, thought that very unlikely, and said such a collapse was improbable before the end of the current century, or even for 1,000 years.

What puts a very big question mark over this, Professor Rapley said, was the recent discovery of the extremely rapid discharge of ice into the Amundsen sea from the WAIS at three remote ice streams, Pine Island, Thwaites, and another unnamed site.

"There is a very dramatic discharge from this region which, five years ago when the IPCC report was written, we just didn't know about," he said. "What we have found completely opens up the whole debate." It had only been recently discovered, he said, because the area was so remote. But BAS scientists, with US help, had established a base in the area to investigate. Professor Rapley said there was some evidence that the discharge was a relatively recent phenomenon and it might be caused by rising ocean temperatures.

Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, who opened the conference, added another ominous prediction when she said that major global warming impacts on the world in the next 20 to 30 years could not be avoided. Whatever we do, potentially disastrous world temperature rises will take place because they are already "built into the system," she said.

Her forecast that we are powerless to prevent major damage from climate change is accepted by scientists but it is rare for such a frank admission from a politician. It reflects the concern at a high level.

It was amplified by senior climate researchers, who said the amount of future warming to which the world is firmly committed, because of greenhouse gases that have already been put into the atmosphere, will be enough to threaten the survival of many ecosystems and wildlife species such as polar bears and penguins.

"I believe that most of the warming we are expecting over the next few decades is now virtually inevitable, and even in this time frame we may expect a significant impact," Mrs Beckett said.


Coral Reefs
May Start To Dissolve In 30 Years

by Sam Marsden, February 2, 2005

Scientists are predicting that coral reefs could start to dissolve within 30 years as rising carbon dioxide levels make the seas more acidic.

Scientists at a climate-change conference in Exeter heard yesterday that the sea is soaking up about 48 per cent of man-made CO2 emissions. The process delays global warming, but ocean scientists believe it is making the water slightly more acidic.

Israeli scientists forecast that as CO2 emissions continue to grow, the acidity will get worse and many species of coral organisms will be unable to build their shells. Their studies of corals in the Red Sea suggest that the tipping point will be reached between 30 and 70 years from now. Professor Jonathan Erez's team, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been taking chemical samples of seawater on the reef in the Red Sea at Eilat. The team says it has found that, at times when natural causes make the water more acidic, the corals grow more slowly. They predict that CO2 emissions will greatly exaggerate the effect.

Professor Erez told BBC2's Newsnight: "This ecosystem, which is the most productive and diverse in the ocean, is going to disappear as an ecosystem. The individual components may survive here and there but, as an ecosystem, our grandchildren will not see coral reefs any more."


Global Warming Approaching Point Of No Return, Warns Leading Climate Expert

by Geoffrey Lean, January 23, 2005

Global warning has already hit the danger point that international attempts to curb it are designed to avoid, according to the world's top climate watchdog.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, told an international conference attended by 114 governments in Mauritius this month that he personally believes that the world has "already reached the level of dangerous concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere" and called for immediate and "very deep" cuts in the pollution if humanity is to "survive".

His comments rocked the Bush administration - which immediately tried to slap him down - not least because it put him in his post after Exxon, the major oil company most opposed to international action on global warming, complained that his predecessor was too "aggressive" on the issue.

A memorandum from Exxon to the White House in early 2001 specifically asked it to get the previous chairman, Dr. Robert Watson, the chief scientist of the World Bank, "replaced at the request of the US". The Bush administration then lobbied other countries in favour of Dr. Pachauri - whom the former vice-president Al Gore called the "let's drag our feet" candidate, and got him elected to replace Dr. Watson, a British-born naturalised American, who had repeatedly called for urgent action.

But this month, at a conference of Small Island Developing States on the Indian Ocean island, the new chairman, a former head of India's Tata Energy Research Institute, himself issued what top United Nations officials described as a "very courageous" challenge.

He told delegates: "Climate change is for real. We have just a small window of opportunity and it is closing rather rapidly. There is not a moment to lose."

Afterwards he told The Independent on Sunday that widespread dying of coral reefs, and rapid melting of ice in the Arctic, had driven him to the conclusion that the danger point the IPCC had been set up to avoid had already been reached.

Reefs throughout the world are perishing as the seas warm up: as water temperatures rise, they lose their colours and turn a ghostly white. Partly as a result, up to a quarter of the world's corals have been destroyed.

And in November, a multi-year study by 300 scientists concluded that the Arctic was warming twice as fast as the rest of the world and that its ice-cap had shrunk by up to 20 per cent in the past three decades.

The ice is also 40 per cent thinner than it was in the 1970s and is expected to disappear altogether by 2070. And while Dr. Pachauri was speaking, parts of the Arctic were having a January "heatwave", with temperatures eight to nine degrees centigrade higher than normal.

He also cited alarming measurements, first reported in The Independent on Sunday, showing that levels of carbon dioxide (the main cause of global warming) have leapt abruptly over the past two years, suggesting that climate change may be accelerating out of control.

He added that, because of inertia built into the Earth's natural systems, the world was now only experiencing the result of pollution emitted in the 1960s, and much greater effects would occur as the increased pollution of later decades worked its way through. He concluded: "We are risking the ability of the human race to survive."

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