Friday, September 14, 2007

Greenland: Farmers and fearful scientists

Guardian: ….Robert Corell, a US-based Arctic scientist and member of the IPCC, described what he had found three weeks ago on a visit to the ice cap. "I spent four months on the ice cap in 1968 and there was no melting at all," he told participants in the Symposium on Religion, Science and Environment in Greenland this week. "Now it's dramatic. There are thousands of moulins - holes that go down into the ice. You can hear water roaring and gurgling. Nobody knows now how quickly it will melt, but the palaeo-data tells us that at three degrees warmer than at present, the ice cap will melt. The projections for global temperature increases are now between three and four degrees."

Greenlanders have waited a long time for prosperity and, bizarrely, climate change may bring it, ending the need for the present annual subsidy from Denmark of $10,500 a year for each of Greenland's 55,000 inhabitants - equivalent to roughly half the Greenland national budget. Future economic promise is fuelling an independence movement; but for the rest of the world, Greenland's melting ice threatens catastrophe. So vast is the Greenland ice sheet that it works as a regional air conditioner. The albedo effect - the reflection of 80% of the sun's heat by the snow and ice - keeps temperatures in the region cool. But as the ice melts, the dark seas and the bare rock surface absorb heat, further accelerating melting and triggering sea level rises that will inundate, among other places, the Nile Delta, much of San Francisco and 40% of Bangladesh.

Arctic scientists are having to tear up their recent predictions and start again. "This is all unprecedented in the science," Corell explains. "Until recently we didn't believe it possible, for instance, for water to permeate a glacier all the way to the bottom. But that's what's happening. As the water pools, it opens more areas of ice to melting."

"For the last 10,000 years," Corell says, "we have been living in a remarkably stable climate that has allowed the whole of human development to take place. In all that time, through the mediaeval warming and the Little Ice Age, there was only a variation of 1C. Now we see the potential for sudden changes of between 2C and 6C. We just don't know what the world is like at those temperatures. We are climbing rapidly out of mankind's safe zone into new territory, and we have no idea if we can live in it."

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