Accelerating melt reason to worry

Rob Fenwick considers the consequences for the Pacific of the melting of the Ross Ice Shelf.

When the world's polar scientists gathered in Montreal last month - all 3000 of them - it seemed like a case of preaching to the choir.

After 20 years of intense study of the effects of changing climate conditions at the poles, there is certainly no longer any debate over what is going on.

The ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica are melting, oceans are rising and acidifying, ecosystems are struggling to adapt. No-one can argue with the facts.

The surprise is that it's happening more quickly than predicted. The runaway effect caused by the lack of snow cover on land and ice cover over the sea is accelerating heat absorption and compounding the rate of melt.

But for all the accumulated scientific evidence and knowledge, there is still precious little evidence of human behaviour changing to adapt to the physically modified environments we will be living in or to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are largely causing the problem.

In her opening speech at the Canadian conference, Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Norwegian prime minister and Special United Nations Envoy on Climate Change, observed that in 30 years the Arctic Ocean will have no permanent ice cover.

You can be sure that's a conservative prediction after the 2009 Climategate debacle rattled the credibility of climate change forecasting.

In the Arctic, changing climate conditions are having a significant effect on the social and economic wellbeing of northern communities.

Tens of thousands of Inuit people live in the high north and decades of environmental degradation and community dislocation have created social issues too often associated with indigenous cultures.

At the same time, immense economic pressures are building to unleash the oil and mineral riches which receding ice makes more available and at lower extractive cost.

These complications don't yet confront the uninhabited Antarctic, which is protected from resource extraction by the miraculously effective Antarctic Treaty, and its prohibition on mining.

So, in the meantime anyway, the big issue for Antarctica and its impact on the world is climate change.

The Ross Sea region of Antarctica, where New Zealand has had a base for more than 50 years, contains the largest continuous sheet of solid ice on the planet. The Ross Ice Shelf covers an area greater than France and is 750 metres deep.

For us, among the big questions are:

What will cause the Ross Ice Shelf to melt?

When will it start and how fast will it be?

How will it affect the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand and its Pacific neighbours?

What should we be doing now to try to slow it down and prepare for it?

Being surrounded by a frozen land mass, the Ross Ice Shelf is not yet showing signs of significant, unseasonal melt.

However, researchers are puzzled by unusual pulses of warm southern ocean currents that are circulating around Antarctica and which, in other parts of the continent, are starting to melt ice from below.

If the Ross Ice Shelf starts to melt, its affect on the Pacific Ocean both physically and chemically, and its impact on the economies of our Pacific Island neighbours, will be catastrophic.

Ask the people of Kiribati and look at what's happening in the Arctic.

New Zealand's influence in both Antarctica and the Pacific requires us to show leadership in trying to solve these complex multidisciplinary questions.

New Zealand is held in high regard within the Antarctic community, a legacy of Sir Edmund Hillary's establishment of Scott Base in 1957. Our scientists have participated in and sometimes led projects such as the climate history research programme Andrill (Antarctic Drilling project).

A recent study by British researchers John Dudeney and David Walton concluded that New Zealand's sphere of influence in Antarctica was greater than any other on the basis of our population - a familiar story of Kiwis punching above their weight.

The research task will be made easier by a polar scientists from throughout the world agreeing that they must collaborate and share data. At the same time, public, private and philanthropic funders are beginning to work together to increase resources.

In New Zealand, a new research institute for Antarctic science backed by global private funders is expected to be announced soon.

The civilised world has never been confronted with as great a challenge as climate change. It threatens many of the norms we have come to expect as essential to our living standards and to which developing countries understandably aspire.

New Zealand and its science community will need all the collaborators and supporters it can muster if it is going to find the answers that will help future generations of those who share the Pacific to thrive in a warmer and significantly different world.

It is far too easy to remain ambivalent to the seemingly daily stories of environmental catastrophe, species extinctions and a changing climate, but after several days in Montreal of learned papers about glaciers disappearing and ocean temperatures rising, one is frequently reminded of the fable about the frog in the saucepan who didn't realise the pot was boiling until it was too late.

The difference between this uncomfortably analogous metaphor and reality is a supposition that humans are more intelligent and adaptable than frogs.

*Rob Fenwick is chairman of Antarctica New Zealand.

The Press