S.G.’s Spokesman Daily Press Briefing of 30 May 2006
USA Today: Global warming worry flows from Arctic ice to tropical waters By Paul Wiseman and Cesar G. Soriano
HONG KONG — When a tsunami rolled over the Maldives on Dec. 26, 2004, the tiny island nation didn't just experience a freak, one-time event; it got a glimpse of the future.
"The Indian Ocean tsunami is a preview of what will happen if we continue business as usual," says Ahmed Jameel, environmental assessment director for the Maldives government. "The waves only lasted for five minutes (and) washed away 20 years of development."
Global warming is a direct threat to the survival of the Maldives, 80% of which sits less than 3 feet above sea level and is vulnerable to rising waters as polar ice melts. "A catastrophe in the making," the Maldives government said in a 2003 report on the impact of climate change.
David King, the British government's chief scientific adviser, raised eyebrows two years ago when he warned that climate change posed a bigger global threat than terrorism. But there's no question that rising temperatures are poised to change life as we know it.
In less than 100 years, the Arctic could be ice-free in the summer, which would allow ships to take the polar route from Europe to Asia, say the Canadian Ice Service and the U.S. Navy. At current rates, 75% of glaciers in the Swiss Alps and two-thirds of those in China will melt by 2050, according to separate studies by the European Environment Agency and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Hurricanes, typhoons and windstorms, which draw energy from warmer ocean waters, are likely to increase in intensity, saddling the insurance industry with $27 billion a year in annual losses by the 2080s. That's an increase of nearly 70%, the Association of British Insurers reported last year.
•Glaciers in the Himalayas are retreating, leaving behind swollen lakes that threaten to flood mountain villages.
•Rising sea levels are eroding beaches in the South Pacific.
•Tundra in Siberia is thawing.
The European Environment Agency, based in Copenhagen, Denmark, says fish in the North Sea are migrating farther north than ever before.
"In Europe, we are absolutely seeing the signs of climate change," Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the agency. In Scandinavia, for instance, loggers are changing the trees they grow and cut to make sure they will survive in a warmer environment.
Even Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world, is shrinking under global warming: The glacier where a team led by Sir Edmund Hillary embarked on the historic climb to the summit in 1953 has retreated by 3 miles, the UNEP reports.
Evidence of global warming is most dramatic in the Arctic.
"You can call the Arctic a barometer of global warming," says Svein Tveitdal, an adviser to the UNEP on polar issues. According to the intergovernmental Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, every year the world is losing enough sea ice to cover Texas and Arizona combined. Some models show the "near-complete disappearance of summer sea ice" by the end of the century.
Greenland's massive ice sheet could disappear over the next millennium, which would raise worldwide sea levels by 23 feet and inundate low-lying places such as Bangladesh, according to a 2004 report in the journal Nature.
Polar bears, dependent on ice floes to pursue seals and other prey, are going hungry, losing weight and having trouble reproducing as their hunting grounds disappear, Tveitdal says. The World Conservation Union predicted this month that the world's polar bear population will drop by 30% over the next 45 years. The Gland — a Swiss-based coalition of government agencies, environmental activists and scientists — called the animals "one of the most notable casualties of global warming."
And then there are the 150,000 Inuit, traditional hunters and fishermen scattered across an Arctic belt that spans the USA, Russia, Greenland and Canada. "Our hunting culture is based on the cold. It's based on having a lot of snow and ice. The ice and snow represent mobility for us," says Sheila Watt-Cloutier, chairman of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, which works to preserve Inuit heritage and protect the Arctic environment. "But changes are coming fast."
Inuits no longer can rely on information passed down through the generations about safe places to hunt or fish. Watt-Cloutier tells of a fishing party in Canada's Cumberland Sound that almost died when the ice broke beneath them early last spring; they lost nearly $30,000 in fishing equipment.
Others haven't been so lucky. "We have had incidents of drownings from falling through thin ice, more so in the last five years or so. The ice now forms differently than before, and what you see on the surface is deceiving," Watt-Cloutier says. "I have a neighbor who lives across the street from me, a seasoned hunter in his late 60s. A few years ago, he fell through the ice, managed to get out, but walked with soaked clothing for a distance then covered himself in snow. When they found him, he was alive but his legs were frozen. He has since lost both legs."
Climate change has forged a connection between the ice fishermen of the Arctic and the villagers of tropical islands half a world away: The melting polar ice is elevating sea levels and imperiling communities in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
For instance, in the tourism-dependent Maldives, a collection of atolls southeast of India, the beaches at 45% of resorts are eroding. Reefs that protect marine life are under attack from rising water temperatures, a process called "coral bleaching," says Jameel, the environmental official.
Few communities have been hit as hard as Lateu, a low-lying village in the Pacific island chain of Vanuatu. Over the past two decades, rising sea levels have repeatedly flooded the village and spoiled its water supplies. "Skin infections, a result of using contaminated water, are common among children," says Brian Phillips, Vanuatu's climate-change adviser.
Last August, a regional organization, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program, relocated more than 100 Lateu villagers to a new community half a mile inland.
The United Nations Environment Program believes they may be just the first of a new class of "climate change refugees."