December 8, 2010

Some Glaciers Are Melting Faster: UN

Glaciers are melting faster in southern South America and Alaska than in Europe, and communities need to adapt to the meltdown, warned a report compiled by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and scientists, and presented Tuesday at the U.N. climate talks in Cancun, Mexico.

Many low-lying glaciers could disappear entirely in the coming decades, with the northwest U.S., southwest Canada and the Arctic also affected, the report said.

While most glaciers began decreasing in size around 150 years ago, the rate of ice loss has increased dramatically since the 1980s, wrote the authors of the report.

"Averaged over their entire areas, within the period 1960 to 2003 glaciers in Patagonia and Alaska have thinned by approximately 35 meters and 25 meters, respectively," the report read.

Among the likely causes are warmer temperatures due to climate change, along with the deposit of soot that reduces the reflection of heat back into space, according to the report.

The shrinking glaciers alter rain patterns and reduce water in rivers, which affects the food supply to nearby communities.

"Adaptation is crucial and urgently needed to assist people who will be affected," said John Crump, UNEP's polar issues coordinator, during a news conference.

Although glaciers are shrinking throughout the world, high rain levels have actually increased the size of some glaciers, such as those in western Norway and New Zealand's South Island, the report said.

As glaciers melt, lakes can sometimes form and eventually burst, resulting in flooding of the surrounding area.  Such floods have increased in the past four decades, according to the report.

Officials in Peru have siphoned off water from lakes formed by melted glaciers, while similar initiatives have been attempted by Nepal and Bhutan. 

On Tuesday, Norway pledged more than $12 million in assistance to help address glacial melting in the Himalayas.  Madhav Karki of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development pointed to aerial pictures of glaciers that he said were shrinking 15 to 50 feet annually in the eastern part of the mountain range.

Norway's five-year investment seeks to help communities in India, Pakistan and China adapt to changes in the glaciers they depend upon, and to investigate why the melting is  happening, said Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim.

"South Asia for me is probably the most vulnerable continent on the globe when it comes to climate change," he told the AFP news agency.

"Norway is at the opposite end of the spectrum."

According to U.N. figures, some 40 percent of the world's floods occur in Asia, and affected nearly a billion people between 1999 and 2008.

Pakistan was hard hit this year by floods that covered an area the size of England.  The disaster killed more than 1,700 people and affected an additional 21 million.

Hasan Mahmud, Environment Minister of Bangladesh, worries about how glacial melting might affect his delta nation, which is ravaged each year by floods from the Himalayas.

"If for any reason this is exacerbated, this will have a devastating impact, beyond our imagination," he said Tuesday.

The full UNEP report, entitled "High Mountain Glaciers and Climate Change - Challenges to Human Livelihoods and Adaptation", can be viewed at www.unep.org or at www.grida.no/publications/high-mountain-glaciers.