Published on Sunday, March 12, 2000 in the Independent/UK
The Seas Keep Rising But The World Looks Away
by Geoffrey Lean

Bill Hanlon and Warren Ward were out hunting on a glacier in the far north of Canada last summer when they stumbled on a human hip protruding from the ice. They looked down to see the perfectly preserved body of a pre-historic man, wearing a cloak made of arctic squirrel skins.

Scattered around him were a walking stick, a wooden spear, a bone knife, a leather pouch with half-eaten food, and a broad-rimmed straw hat, just as he had dropped them when he fell into a crevasse 12,000 years ago.

Back at the beginning of the 1990s a different glacier – this one just a few yards inside Italy in the Alps – disgorged another prehistoric hunter, his shoes stuffed with straw to keep out the cold.

The icemen have come back to humanity, after thousands of years, because the glaciers that entombed them are melting all over the world. Lester Brown, president of the authoritative Worldwatch Institute, says: "Our ancestors are emerging from the ice with a message for us: Earth is getting warmer."

This spring his institute will publish a striking catalogue of the world's shrinking ice cover. Glaciers now are smaller than at any time in the past 5,000 years while the ice covers at both poles are melting.

Worldwatch reports that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking by 24,000 sq km every year. Worse, it is now on average five foot thick compared with nine feet just 30 years ago.

"Overall," the report says, "the Arctic sea ice has lost some 40 per cent of its volume in less than 30 years. If the melting continues at this pace, experts predict the ice pack could be gone in a matter of decades."

Meanwhile, the map of Antarctica has been changed for ever over the past decade as three great ice-sheets – the Wordie, the Larsen A and the Prince Gustav shelves – have disappeared entirely. Two more – the Larsen B and the Wilkins shelves – have lost a seventh of their combined area in the past 18 months and, the report says, "are expected to break up soon".

The melting of this floating ice, at both poles, will not raise sea levels since it already displaces the equivalent amount of water. But there are some signs that land-based ice is disappearing too.

Parts of the southern and eastern edges of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which contains eight per cent of the world's ice, have been thinning by more than three foot a year for the past six years. The Antarctic ice cap has so far remained stable. But the Pine Island Glacier, thought by some scientists to be the key to the future of the smaller, West Antarctic Ice Sheet, has retreated by 1.2 km a year over the past four years and is thinning by more than 10 feet annually.

If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, sea levels around the world would rise by nearly 20 feet, submerging vast areas of the land.

One third of the present sea level rise – between 10 cm and 25 cm over the past century – has been caused by melting glaciers; the rest comes from the way the oceans expand as they warm up. They are increasingly thinning and retreating up the mountainsides.

Glaciers both in the Alps and the Caucasus have lost half their ice over the past 100 to 150 years. Half of Spain's glaciers have disappeared, along with two-thirds of those in the Glacier National Park in Montana in the US.

And the melting is accelerating. The Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas is receding twice as fast as 25 years ago, the Speka glacier in Uganda by three times as much. And the Quelccaya glacier in the Peruvian Andes is now retreating 10 times as fast as just a decade ago.

The report estimates that the world could lose up to a quarter of all its glacier ice by 2050 and half by 2100, leaving the only large remaining patches in Alaska, Patagonia and the Himalayas.

Already some effects are being felt. The retreat of the Quelccaya glacier threatens water supplies for Lima's 10 million people, while the melting of Himalayan glaciers is leading to spring floods followed by water scarcity in the summer.

As ice disappears it ceases to reflect heat back into space, causing global warming to speed up. And scientists increasingly believe that as more and more fresh water gets into the Atlantic, the Gulf Stream may be directed southwards, paradoxically making Britain and north west Europe very much colder as the rest of the world heats up.

The melting of the world's ice is only the latest of a host of signs that global warming is already under way. Eight of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade.

Violent weather, long predicted to accompany the climate change, is increasing: the amount of damage done by storms in 1998 alone exceeded the total for the whole of the 1980s and, as the Independent on Sunday reported last summer, two Pacific islands have disappeared beneath the waves.

And yet the world dithers. Governments have yet to put the final touches to the Kyoto agreement of two years ago, designed to be the first small step towards cutting back the pollution that causes global warming.

It is far from certain that they will agree to them at a crucial meeting in November: the US, with 4 per cent of the world's people while producing 20 per cent of its carbon dioxide, still shows little sign of accepting the agreement.

For once Britain is in the lead. Last week ministers unveiled plans to cut Britain's emissions of greenhouse gases by 21.5 per cent by the year 2020, almost twice as much as they agreed to under the Kyoto agreement, making us the only country in the world to go further than we are obliged to do.

Ten days ago Tony Blair met business leaders to talk over the practicalities. And Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott and Environment Minister Michael Meacher, who pushed through the agreement two and a half years ago, are gearing up to try to repeat the trick in November.

But still the world is moving at a glacial pace. Perhaps, environmentalists hope, the news of the speed at which the world is melting might just break the diplomatic ice.

Copyright 2000 Independent.Co.UK