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Arctic hotspots
 

A scientist in orange body suit draws one ice core from shelves containing row upon row and hundreds of samples. Photo credit: Still
Core samples from the Greenland ice sheet are examined for evidence of global warming caused by rising CO2 levels
 

Arctic hotspots

 

There are rapid changes in the Arctic and Antarctica but a stalemate on limits to greenhouse gases. The need for decisive action is urgent, says David Shukman

I see it in their faces: the puzzled look from friends, family and colleagues as they ask why I keep subjecting myself to the coldest, most remote, least hospitable corners of the planet to report on global warming - seven times, at the last count.

The answer is simple: some years ago scientists predicted that the climate would change fastest in the polar regions and that is exactly what's happening. The Arctic and parts of Antarctica have warmed more rapidly than anywhere else on Earth and we could all feel the consequences.

The great white continent

 
At first sight I could not believe that the icy wastes could ever change. My first glimpse of Antarctica left me stunned. The great white continent, 60 times the size of Britain and twice that of Australia, seemed immoveable. From the cockpit of a Chilean Navy patrol plane the endless miles of ice were dazzling.

But a team of Nasa scientists was on board and, using lasers and radar imaging to see through the mile-thick ice, they made a crucial discovery: that the ice is far more flexible, more responsive to change than previously thought. This matters. Even a slight warming could trigger a rush of ice towards the ocean. And the more ice melts, the more the sea-level rises, and the more the world's great coastal cities will be threatened.

 
Clearly there are thresholds or tipping points which, when crossed, could unleash even faster warming
 
I wondered if this was just an anomaly. Sadly not. At the other end of the world, in Greenland, I found a similar story with another Nasa team. Their research also overturned traditional thinking. They found that the ice-sheet actually accelerates downhill towards the sea during the warmer months of summer. The implications in a warmer world are staggering. If the entire Greenland ice-sheet were to melt, sea-level would rise by seven metres. Even a fraction of that could overwhelm defences.

And if you really want to scare yourself, look at past climate records. One feature stands out: changes can occur very rapidly. Clearly there are thresholds or tipping points which, when crossed, could unleash even faster warming.

Permafrost thaw

 
One example is in Siberia, the world's largest expanse of so-called permafrost, soil that's frozen solid. I made the long trek to the remote science station at Cherskii, 11 time zones east of London. Scientists there have found that ground that has been frozen for up to 40,000 years is now thawing, releasing vast quantities of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and the more potent methane. The danger, I was told, is of a vicious cycle of change - the warming unlocking more gases and causing further warming.

These risks, and others, have been detailed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its last report in 2001 has, until now, been the benchmark for all discussions about global warming. Its new, definitive guide to the latest science has resulted in an inevitable surge in concern about the future weather.

Last year saw climate change shoot up the agenda like never before. But we're witnessing a curious paradox. Internationally, progress on securing agreement for a new round of limits on greenhouse gases is painfully slow. I was one of the journalists at the last round of UN talks on climate change in Nairobi last November. The words 'stalemate' and 'deadlock' appeared in all our reports.

Changing the future

 
But at the same time, we're suddenly seeing the boards of major banks and supermarkets waking up to the issue. Individual US states like California and cities like Seattle are committed to taking action. Newspapers previously
dismissive of global warming as just another green bandwagon are changing their approach. Investment in green energy technologies has never been so intense.

And all that brings us closer to the trickiest question of all: whether any of us, wherever we are, is prepared to change our lifestyle for the sake of minimising global warming.

From IPCC 4th Assessment Report
• Large areas of the Arctic Ocean could lose year-round ice cover by the end of the 21st century if human emissions reach the higher estimates
Given what the scientists are telling us, is it right for tens of millions of us to fly off on holiday? Is it reasonable to expect the people of developing countries not to want the cars, television and travel that have become integral to the energy-intensive industrialised world?

Acknowledging that climate change is a threat is the easy part. Choosing what we do about it is far harder. But this year the need for decisions will become all the more urgent.

David Shukman
David Shukman, Environment & Science Correspondent for BBC News, has reported from locations as diverse as the Antarctic and the Amazon and his documentaries on climate change research were screened in January as a prelude to the Climate Watch season on BBC World. He has been a BBC correspondent for over 20 years
Visit the BBC Climate change portal
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