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Arctic Ice Flows Appear To Be Moving Faster than COP15 Negotiators

By Nicole Heller and Andrew Freedman

Is climate policy keeping up with the rapidly evolving science? It sure didn’t feel like it this afternoon at the Bella Center, where the dichotomy between the political talks inside the negotiating rooms and the discussions taking place outside was particularly heightened. While the politicians struggled to heal a rift between industrialized countries and developing nations over how the talks will proceed (a split that was punctuated by a brief halt in negotiations today), in other parts of the building climate scientists and politicians came together to discuss the most recent science on sea level rise and its political implications.

The discussion was pessimistic.

“We think that researchers are too radical, and it turns out they are too conservative,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller, referring to scientific findings since the most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 2007 (the most recent studies in that report were from about 2005). The IPCC 2007 report estimated global sea level rise at between a 0.18 to 0.59 meter increase relative to late 20th century values, but recent research suggests that estimate is going to have to be increased substantially in the next assessment.

A new report released today from the Norwegian Polar Institute highlights more updated research which paints a much more grim picture of Arctic warming and sea level rise. According to the report, melting land-based ice, such as the Greenland Ice Sheet and mountain glaciers, combined with thermal expansion of water as the ocean warms, are projected to cause global sea levels to rise by about 1 meter plus or minus 0.5 meters by 2100. And it could be worse if ice sheet loss continues to accelerate faster than models predict, experts said at a “side event” and a press conference announcing the report.

The Greenland ice sheet is a 3 million cubic kilometer block of ice, and when that ice melts, it adds to the global sea level (unlike sea ice, which does not contribute to sea level rise). In recent years the ice mass loss from the Greenland ice sheet has increased to about 160 gigatons per year, compared to 50 gigatons per year during the period between 1995 and 2000, the report stated.

“This is the fastest rate of ice mass lost ever seen,” according to co-author Dorthe Dahl-Jenson of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark.

Dahl-Jenson didn't mince any words while presenting the information, and clearly intended to influence negotiators down the hallway. “I hope scientists, politicians, and citizens are shaken by this news,” she said.

What has troubled her, and other members of the panel (including former vice president Al Gore), is the acceleration of the ice melt in the last decade.

>Although predictions of the future behavior of the Greenland ice sheet are highly uncertain, the report warned about the fact that as the ice thins, it reinforces the warming, thereby having a positive feedback on the ice loss.

“Beyond a certain point, the ice sheet may even enter a state of “irreversible destabilization” leading to a complete melting of the ice sheet,” the report stated.

Dahl-Jenson framed it more dramatically: “This is the fastest flowing ice we’ve ever dreamed of…We have awoken the giants.”

Gro Harlem Brundtland, UN special envoy on climate change, said the ice and snow melt data “illustrate the drama of where we are heading.”

Perhaps the starkest moment was when Robert Corell of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and Environment in Washington announced that as of today, the proposals on the table at COP15 would stabilize atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide at about 750 parts per million (ppm).  We are currently at about 387ppm, and are already experiencing rapid melting of ice sheets that scientists had long thought would only melt at much higher temperatures.

Many countries here, backed by environmental activists, have been uniting around a target of 350ppm.

On a more promising note, the report also highlighted the warming role played by gases other than carbon dioxide, which has been cast as the main villain in global climate change. Less maligned greenhouse gases, such as methane and black carbon (soot), also cause warming and are thought to be triggering a significant portion of Arctic warming.

The good news about at least black carbon is that it only remains in the atmosphere for a few weeks, compared to up to a century for a molecule of carbon dioxide, and emissions can be reduced by already available, and relatively cheap means, such as deploying cleaner burning cooking stoves and automobile engines, particularly in the developing world. Corell said slashing black carbon alone could cut about 20 percent of the warming in the Arctic.

To that end, here in Copenhagen today U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced a new technology deployment initiative today that may help that effort.


Keeling Curve Charles David Keeling's measurements provided the significant evidence of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration

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