Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Melting Ice. Can we afford to take our time?

Thanks to the excellentClimate Progress blog for calling my attention to the following.

Though it's not by any means the only serious impact of climate change, rising sea levels are probably the impact most directly linked to that change. Only the most hardened skeptic would refuse to connect global warming with melting ice caps. And only a boob would refuse to admit that those melting ice caps contribute to rising seas and the damage they will cause to human habitation.

Scientists have been following the freezing and thawing of the Arctic ice and lately it's been bothering them a lot because of the seemingly accelerated pace of thawing and the shrinking size of the winter freeze. Until recently, most scientists felt comfortable with a forecast that the ice cap would exist at least until 2040, but doubts have arisen and more money is now being allocated for deeper study.

From now until March 2009, as part of the International Polar Year, 63 nations will funnel $1.7 billion into polar research, aiming to determine which changes in the frozen landscape are natural, which are man-made and which, if any, are preventable. "There's been a rallying cry," says Ted Scambos of the University of Colorado. "We have to figure out how to tell policymakers, and the public, where and when to expect a big change."

So far, the studies don't look good. In mid-March, the journal Science devoted a section to the polar regions that was uniformly depressing: lower latitudes pollute pristine pole, read one headline. Another paper warned that Greenland and Antarctica are shedding 125 gigatons of ice per year, and though the southern continent has picked up some new ice from increased snowfall, it's not enough.
Hopefully, some of that $1.7B will help get scientists the equipment they need to keep up with the changes that are so swiftly happening. Compared to spending for, oh let's say the military, expenditures on the tools for measuring and forecasting worldwide flooding is pitifully small.
Despite the publicity around the IPY, scientists still have limited access to the technology they need. The U.S. Arctic Research Commission recently published a wish list of monitoring equipment, topped by icebreakers (America rents some ships from Russia and Sweden), a better sensor network of buoys and river gauges, and satellites.
And here's a boondoggle: the US did not contribute funding to the launch of the radarsat-2 satellite that will be necessary to analyze the changes in the ice cap in the coming years, and as one scientist claims, he's "not aware that any federal agency has a budget to buy" its data after 2009.

Why do I get the feeling that governments are gonna screw things up again?

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