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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Arctic Melting Speeds Up Rising Sea Levels

Air Date: Week of

Increasing temperatures are melting Arctic ice faster than scientists previously thought which could lead to twice as much sea level rise by the end of the century. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with climate scientist Bob Corell about how the North Pole's ice is quickly slipping into the sea.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Bruce Gellerman. Coming up - wild weather in the U.S. But first a warning about global warming from Greenland. Scientists say if you want to see the first signs of climate change, just go to Greenland. Greenland is the canary in the coalmine. As we burn coal and fossil fuels, the greenhouse gases they emit envelop the planet and trap heat in the atmosphere.

It’s in the Arctic region, especially Greenland, where the effects of global warming are greatest. The vast, frozen island is defrosting fast - much faster than scientists ever anticipated. According to a new report by the Arctic Council - a group of eight nations, including the U.S., that border the Arctic region - the past six years are the warmest ever recorded. And it’s getting warmer.
Back in 2004, Robert Corell was chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment. It was also produced by the Arctic Council and was the basis for this new report.

CORELL: The temperatures are rising exponentially and that's what's troublesome because we can’t do this forever - because pretty soon, we are likely to see an ice-free Arctic Ocean for some time in the summer, maybe as soon as ten or twenty years from now. And, you know, that has not been ice-free - I mean, we have facts about it…it has not been ice-free for a million years, and it’s more likely not having been ice-free for three million years. So it’s a new ballgame.

GELLERMAN: So why is the warming accelerating? What’s going on here?

CORELL: Well the Arctic is kind of a bellwether. It behaves more aggressively in terms of responding to this warming than the rest of the planet. Let me give you an example: if you melt the Arctic Ocean - ice, which of course we’ve lost over 40 percent of it now in the summertime - before, that Arctic Ocean looked like a mirror so that when the sun’s rays came in, they just bounced around and went back. But when the water is there, it looks black to the sun and sits there and absorbs that energy.

GELLERMAN: Oh, so the - yeah, so it’s like a solar cell, it kind of absorbs.

CORELL: Yeah, exactly. And so it’s sitting there, sucking all this energy and keeping it. And of course the ocean can only keep so much of it - it puts some of it back into the atmosphere. So we get this accelerating effect. And the other thing is: buried in the Arctic is a huge amount of methane.

GELLERMAN: Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas.

CORELL: And it’s about 25 times as powerful as CO2. And it’s caught up in the permafrost - the frozen ice in the landmass and under the sea. And it’s hard to estimate, but the Russians say that there’s at least that amount of methane in there equal to all the energy we’ve consumed since 1850. And we’re getting close to the point where some of that methane is going to start to come out. Once it starts coming out, it’s not stoppable. So right now it is a contributor, but it’s not a serious one. But it’s clear that if that methane starts coming out, you’re going to warm the planet in a way that will challenge the very basis upon which humanity has had 10,000 years of incredible stability.

GELLERMAN: So what’s the interaction between the melting snow and the sea ice?

CORELL: Most of the melting of the snow occurs on the landmass. When that snow melts and that land-based ice melts, guess what? That water goes into the ocean and it contributes to sea level. And we now know - and announced in this meeting - that even five years ago we thought that the amount of sea level rise might be a foot and a half or two - it’s now clear it’s around about three or four feet by the end of the century.
That’s huge because that’s the global average. But if you go in the western Pacific - small island states - they get five times as much sea level. So they’ve already seen a meter of sea level, and that’s why they’re screaming at us that, you know, ‘Our islands are going to disappear!’ Because at the end of the century, they’re going to see five or six meters. Those are big numbers.

An iceberg slips into the Alaskan Arctic. More ice turning to dark water means the planet will absorb more heat, in turn melting more ice. (Photo: Timothy K Hamilton/Flickr)

GELLERMAN: You and the Arctic Council are painting a very bleak picture, we have this warning -

CORELL: Now this is tough stuff! And the numbers I gave you are not meant to scare - they’re meant to give you the scale on which it’s happening. So I’m of the opinion that humans, as we know - remember we’re the only ones on the planet who have the ability to decide something about our future - we’ve got our hands on the knobs, the dials that will control the future of the planet.
But you know what makes me an optimist is that the resilience of the human is remarkable. And that day will come when we wake up as humans - I fear that it will not be as soon as it should be because if we warm this planet two or three degrees centigrade, which is where we’re headed, it’ll be a different planet.

GELLERMAN: Professor, thanks so much.

CORELL: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Professor Robert Corell is an Arctic climatologist and Principal of the Global Environment and Technology Foundation. Copies of the new Arctic Council report will be given to council ministers including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they meet in Greenland on May the 12th.



Click here for the new study on Arctic melting

SWIPA 2011 Executive Sumary

Snow Water Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic


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