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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 17:29 GMT
Global warming 'could melt Arctic'
explorer at pole
This man walked to the North Pole: Few more may be able to follow him
By environment correspondent Alex Kirby

Scientists say climate change could have dramatic consequences for the Arctic this century.

I think it's quite possible that the entire Arctic could lose its ice.

Professor Elizabeth Morris, Scott Polar Research Institute
They do not rule out the possibility that the entire Arctic could become ice-free.

They expect that, even on conservative estimates, much of its land and sea ice may melt.

And this could have unpredictable effects on ocean currents and weather systems thousands of miles away.

The scientists have written a report for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body bringing together many of the world's leading climatologists.

Huge loss foreseen

The report is on the impacts of climate change, the Earth's vulnerability to them, and the prospects for adaptation.
polar bear on floe
Arctic wildlife is already affected
If the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide (C02) reaches twice its pre-industrial levels, the report says, then the summer sea ice in the Arctic could shrink by up to 60%.

The CO2 level has risen by about a third in the last 250 years, and many climatologists believe it could be twice its 1750 level by 2050.

The extent of the Arctic sea ice has declined by almost a third in the past 130 years, and the report says it is possible that the Arctic could lose all its ice.

The authors say: "The Greenland ice sheet suffers melting in summer at its margins. There is a trend towards an increase in area and duration of this melt . . . If warming continues, the Greenland ice sheet will melt considerably."

They are concerned as well about the permafrost, the layer of permanently frozen soil which serves as the solid foundation for buildings and other structures throughout the Arctic.

Dr Svein Tveitdal, of the UN Environment Programme's Norwegian polar centre, Grid Arendal, said: "The thawing of the permafrost will destroy buildings, roads, pipelines and transmission lines.

Wide repercussions

"In Siberia a large number of five-storey buildings have already been weakened or damaged. It is predicted that by 2030 most buildings in cities like Yakutsk and Tikisi could be lost."

Dr Klaus Toepfer, the director of Unep, said: "What happens in the Arctic and the Antarctic has implications for everyone on the planet.

"The polar regions play a crucial role in driving the circulation of the world's oceans, which in turn affect weather systems and the climate on every continent."
rock and snow
Greenland's ice is melting

Professor Elizabeth Morris, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, UK, told BBC News Online: "I'm stunned by these findings, but at the same time not really surprised.

"I trust the people involved. I'm sure they've done their modelling thoroughly. If they've really found there's going to be as much loss of ice in the Arctic as this, it will have a dramatic effect.

"I think it's quite possible that the entire Arctic could lose its ice. If it starts melting, there's nothing to stop the melting spreading the whole way across the Arctic ocean.

Positive feedback

"One of the key findings is that 22% of the Arctic permafrost could go. There's a lot of CO2 and methane in there.

"If that's released, it will be a positive feedback adding to the warming process. And it's entirely consistent with our understanding of what to expect.

"And the IPCC says the melting could mean more fresh water entering the sea, and affecting the thermohaline circulation in the north Atlantic.

"That would affect the Gulf Stream. It's not fantasy, it's plausible - and we think it's what happened in very rapid climate changes in the past."

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14 Aug 00 | Sci/Tech
Arctic warming gathers pace
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