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Record Glacier Melt Spurs New Calls for Climate Action

Haider Rizvi

0319 07UNITED NATIONS - Alarmed by new scientific data showing a continued increase in the melting of the world's glaciers due to global warming, top UN environmental officials are making fresh calls for a new international agreement to cap greenhouse gas emissions."

Governments must agree on decisive emission reductions," said Achim Steiner, UN Environmental Agency (UNEP) executive director. "Otherwise, and like the glaciers, our room for maneuver and the opportunity to act may simply melt away."

The call for a new international climate regime comes in the wake of new research conducted by environmental scientists associated with the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS), a center based at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, which receives some funding from UNEP.

Scientists at the University of Zurich say their latest findings indicate that in the past three years the average rate of melting and thinning of glaciers has more than doubled.

"The latest figures are part of what appears to be an accelerating trend with no apparent trend end in sight," said Dr. Wilfried Haeberli, director of WGMS, which has been tracking the fate of glaciers for more than a century.

According to Haeberli and his colleagues, the estimates for the year 2006 indicate that further shrinking took place, averaging around 1.4 meters of water equivalent compared to losses of half a meter in 2005.

"This continues the trend in accelerated ice loss during the past two and a half decades, and brings the total loss since 1980 to more than 10.5 meters of water equivalent," said Haeberli.

WGMS calculates thickening and thinning of glaciers in terms of "water equivalent." According to scientists, on average, 1 meter water equivalent corresponds to 1.1 meters in ice thickness, indicating a further shrinking in 2006 of 1.5 actual meters and since 1980 an average total reduction in ice thickness of 11.5 meters -- or about 38 feet -- per glacier.

"Millions, if not billions of people depend directly or indirectly on these natural water storage facilities for drinking, agriculture, industry, and power generation during key parts of the year," said Steiner.

"There are many canaries emerging in the climate change coal mine," he added in a statement. "The glaciers are perhaps those making the most noise and it is absolutely essential that everyone sits up and takes notice."

Last year in December, at the world summit on climate change, delegates failed to set specific targets for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, but agreed to initiate a two-year process of negotiations on targets to replace those in the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The negotiations will be be finalized by the 2009 UN climate conference, to be held in Denmark.

The so-called "Bali roadmap" contains text on emissions cuts, the transfer of clean technology to developing countries, halting deforestation, and helping poor countries protect their economies against the impacts of global warming.


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UNEP's Steiner called the Copenhagen meeting a "litmus test" of the international community's will to address climate change.

While the United States and a few industrialized countries continue to show a lack of commitment to prioritizing climate change above domestic concerns, all the European nations seem ready to take concrete initiative to address the global problem.

Last week, at a two-day summit in Brussels, leaders from the 27-member European Union declared their intention to implement a 20-percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2020, compared with 1990 levels.

The WGMS research shows that some of the most dramatic glacier shrinkage has occurred in Europe with Norway's Breidalblikkbrea glacier thinning by close to 3.1 meters during 2006, compared with a thinning of 0.3 meters over the previous year.

Norway is a member of Arctic Council, which includes Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, Russia, and the United States. It was created in 1995 as a high-level official body to deal with the sustainable development of the circumpolar world.

Indigenous people of the Arctic region have long warned about the devastating consequences of the melting of ice.

"No one has been able to address the issue as seriously as it needed to be addressed over the years," Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a prominent leader of the Inuit people who works with the Council members closely, told OneWorld in a recent interview.

"Our homes are going into the sea," she said. "Global warming is destroying our right to life, property, and means of subsistence."

Earth Policy Institute founder Lester Brown has warned that the impact of shrinking glaciers could soon be felt well beyond the Arctic regions, with food prices potentially soaring for consumers the world over.

The melting of mountain glaciers in the Himalayas and China could soon deprive the Ganges, Yellow, and Yangtze rivers of the ice melt needed to sustain their flow during the dry season, Brown said, adding that irrigation-based agriculture in China and India could suffer as a result.

"In a world where grain prices have already climbed to record highs, any disruption of the wheat and rice harvests due to water shortages in these two leading producers will greatly affect not only people living in these countries, but consumers everywhere," Brown's group explained in a statement emailed to journalists today.

The WGMS findings contain figures from around 100 glaciers, of which 30 form the core assessment. They are located in Antarctica, Asia, Europe, North America, Latin America, and the Pacific.

© 2008 One

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