Monday, April 07, 2008
Two Warnings from the North Pole
Ben Saunders from Ben Saunders on Vimeo.
On the day that Ben Saunders has had to abandon his solo expedition to the North Pole, James Hansen, Head of Nasa and one of the world's leading climate change scientists, warns of rapidly melting ice due to feed-back mechanisms from our increase in CO2 emissions. As ice sheets recede, the warming effect is compounded says Hansen. Satellite technology available over the past three years has shown that the ice sheets are melting much faster than expected, with Greenland and west Antarctica both losing mass. It is this very melting ice that has literally stopped Ben in his tracks.
A recent paper co-authored by Hansen and eight other scientists warns that the EU and its international partners must urgently rethink targets for cutting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere because of fears they have grossly underestimated the scale of the problem. The EU target of 550 parts per million of C02 - the most stringent in the world - should be slashed to 350ppm. He argues the cut is needed if "humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilisation developed. If you leave us at 450ppm for long enough it will probably melt all the ice - that's a sea rise of 75 metres. What we have found is that the target we have all been aiming for is a disaster - a guaranteed disaster,"
Hansen said that he now regards as implausible the view of many climate scientists that the shrinking of the ice sheets would take thousands of years. "If we follow business as usual I can't see how west Antarctica could survive a century. We are talking about a sea-level rise of at least a couple of metres this century."
For the past 8 days Ben has witnessed first-hand the erosion of the ice making his expedition impossible to continue as equipment failed him whilst he battled with the worsening conditions of the rapidly melting ice. Battling against what has been described by many as the worst conditions in recent history, Ben has encountered miles of never ending pressure ridges, some standing as tall as two-storeys high, over which he has dragged his 65kg sledge. This is what he has to say:
"The ice conditions I have encountered have been the worst I have ever seen, and worse than I could have imagined. I am witnessing at first hand the disintegration of the last of the Arctic’s multi-year pack ice. If climate change in the high Arctic continues at its current rate, I may be one of the last to be able to attempt this journey on foot. I feel enormously privileged to have had that chance and the only true failure would have been not to have started this expedition in the first place."
Over a year ago I chatted with Ben about the receding Arctic ice. He told me then that the pace and scale of the change he witnesses is breathtaking. You can read more of what he said here.
But it is not all bad news. Hansen said his findings were not a recipe for despair. The good news, he said, is that reserves of fossil fuels have been exaggerated, so an alternative source of energy will have to be rapidly put in place in any case. Other measure could include a moratorium on coal power stations which would bring the C02 levels to below 400ppm.
As for Ben, his first-hand reports of the climate changing conditions he is experiencing are invaluable and illuminating. If we take the advice of Hansen et all, the ice may well be there for future generations of explorers like Ben to report back from.