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Environment Ministers Meet In Antarctica

February 24, 2009

A group of environment ministers landed on a remote corner of Antarctica on Monday to learn more about how the melting continent may threaten the Earth.

The parka-clad representatives from more than twelve nations, including the U.S., China, Britain and Russia, were to meet scientists from the U.S. and Norway who were arriving after the last leg of a two-month, 1,400-mile trip over the ice from the South Pole.

The group will gain “hands-on experience of the colossal magnitude of the Antarctic continent and its role in global climate change,” said Norway’s Environment Ministry, who organized the meeting.

They will also learn more about the challenges plaguing research into the link between global warming and the continent, such as how much Antarctica is warming, how much its ice is melting into the sea and how high sea levels might rise throughout the worldwide.

The answers are hard to pin down, so much so that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a Nobel Prize-winning network of U.N. scientists, excluded the potential threat from  polar ice sheets from calculations in its authoritative 2007 global warming assessment.

The IPCC predicts that oceans may rise up to 23 inches this century, due to heat expansion and melting land ice, global emissions of carbon dioxide are not reduced.  However, the U.N. panel did not consider Antarctica and Greenland in their forecast, since the interactions of atmosphere and ocean with their enormous stores of ice are not clearly understood. Antarctica has 90 percent of the world’s ice.

The West Antarctic ice sheet alone “could be the most dangerous tipping point this century,” according to NASA’s James Hansen, a top U.S. climatologist.

“There is the potential for several-meter rise of sea level,” he told The Associated Press last week.

It’s a “frightening” scenario, said IPCC’s chief scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, who met with the ministers in Cape Town ahead of their nine-hour flight from South Africa to Antarctica.

Finding the answers has been a critical component of the 2007-2009 International Polar Year (IPY), which has enlisted 10,000 scientists and 40,000 others from more than 60 nations for concentrated research on the Arctic and Antarctica using icebreakers, submarines, surveillance satellite and other methods.

The 12-member Norwegian-American Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica, currently making their 1,400 mile trek to the research station, was one key part of that work.  The team drilled deep cores into the ice sheet’s annual layers in this rarely-explored region, to determine the quantity and composition of snow that has fallen historically there.

Such efforts will be combined with a separate IPY project that will conduct an all-out initiative to map by satellite radar the “velocity fields” of the entire continent’s ice sheets.  The researchers seek to assess how quickly the ice is being pushed into the surrounding sea.

Scientists may then be better able to understand “mass balance” “” how much the snow, beginning with ocean evaporation, is counterbalancing the ice pouring out to sea .

“We’re not sure what the East Antarctic ice sheet is doing,” IPY director David Carlson explained to the AP from the organization’s offices in Cambridge, England last week.

“It looks like it is flowing a little faster. So is that matched by accumulation? What they come back with will be crucial to understanding the process.”

The visiting ministers were those of Britain, Algeria, Sweden, Congo, the Czech Republic, Finland and Norway.   Other nations were represented by climate negotiators and policymakers, including China’s Xie Zhenhua Dan Reifsnyder, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state.

During their long day on the continent, with 17-hours of sunlight and temperatures dropping to near zero Fahrenheit, the representatives took in the magnificent sights of Queen Maud Land, a mountainous icescape 3,000 miles southwest of South Africa, and visited the Norwegians’ high-tech Troll Research Station, upgraded to year-round operations in 2005.

Significant research lies ahead, including investigations of the possible shifting and warming currents of the Southern Ocean ringing Antarctica, the scientists say.

“We need to put more resources in,” Carlson told the AP.

Some scientists say political action is more urgently needed.

“We are out of out cotton-pickin’ minds if we let that process get started,” said Hansen, referring to an Antarctic meltdown.

“Because there will be no stopping it.”

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