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Glacial melting

sac/sh, afp/ap/dpa/reutersApril 28, 2009

Just months before the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, experts and politicians have met in Norway to discuss the disastrous impacts of melting ice in Antarctica, the Arctic and mountain areas worldwide.

A polar bear leaping from one ice floe to another
Polar bears are increasingly finding less ice to live onImage: picture alliance/dpa

Nobel Prize laureate and climate advocate Al Gore said Tuesday that prompt action is necessary to prevent the potentially irreversible melting of the planet's ice. The former US vice president co-chaired a conference devoted to melting ice in the town of Tromso in northern Norway.

Gore told foreign ministers and climate change scientists that the ice was melting faster in the Arctic and in Greenland than the worst-case projections by experts a few years ago.

"The ice is also melting in West Antarctica and in mountainous regions across the globe," Gore said. "This conference is a global wake-up call."

The scientific evidence for action at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December was continuing to build up week by week, he said.

Norway's foreign minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said peaceful cooperation in the Arctic was crucial, as the region's five bordering countries vie for potentially lucrative natural resources.

"High North, low tension," Stoere told reporters. "We will, as responsible governments and coastal states, be able to manage the challenges and opportunities of this region without gliding into conflict and negative competition."

Glacial melting will hit the most vulnerable

According to Gore, ice reflects 90 percent of the sun's radiation back into the atmosphere. If the ice were to melt, the dark water would not reflect the heat but instead absorb it, thereby accentuating the effect of global warming.

A melting iceberg in Greenland
Icebergs are melting at an alarming rateImage: AP

"As it disappears, we have to keep in mind that it can come back only if we act fairly quickly," said Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"If we keep turning the temperature of the earth up, then the heat will go to the lower depths of the Arctic Ocean and it will be impossible for the ice to come back," Gore added.

But increased glacial melting in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau as well as of land glaciers elsewhere in the world would also have detrimental effects for millions of people, Stoere said.

"Some of the first and most painful impacts of melting ice will be felt there among some of the most vulnerable populations of the world," Stoere said. "As these glaciers melt, some of the world's poorest will experience floods from increased melt water, and then water shortages that will devastate local agriculture and drinking supplies."

Populations in South Asia could suffer from flooding not only from the melting of the Himalayas, but also from rising sea levels due to ice melting at the poles, he said.

Gore said that each one-meter rise of water levels will cause 100 million people to become climate refugees.

Reducing soot could decelerate ice melt

Stoere said cutting soot emissions might slow the trend. Soot and other fine particles released by fires and diesel motors in eastern Europe and Asia are carried by the wind to the Arctic. They cover the ice in a thin sheet, which increases its absorption of solar rays and accelerates the ice melt.

exhaust pipe of a car
Diesel fumes also harm the Arctic iceImage: AP

"Since they have such short lifetimes, from a few days for black carbon to a decade for methane, reductions in these pollutants would show an early climate response," Stoere said. "It might give regions of ice and snow a chance to survive long enough for greenhouse gas reductions to have an impact."

Following the conference, a working group will write a report to raise awareness among decision-makers about the issue of melting ice ahead of the Copenhagen summit.

On Wednesday, Norway hosts the Arctic Council's annual ministerial meeting in Tromso. Members of the Arctic Council are the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark including Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland and Norway.

This week, the United States invited China, India and the world's other top greenhouse gas polluters to Washington to lay the groundwork for a UN deal to fight climate change.