Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Glacier experts call for “urgent responses” -- report to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

Glacier loss during 22 years, in the Alps

An international team of experts have just presented their findings, Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene (the era in which man-made changes affect the entire natural system), to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the Vatican's non-denominational scientific arm.

The Vatican's foreword emphasizes the moral implications: "We are committed to ensuring that all inhabitants of this planet receive their daily bread, fresh air to breathe and clean water to drink as we are aware that, if we want justice and peace, we must protect the habitat that sustains us."

The report warns of "serious and potentially irreversible impacts of global warming caused by the anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, and by changes in forests, wetlands, grasslands, and other land uses," urging steep cuts in the world's output of air pollutants. Failure to do so will imperil vulnerable ecosystems and human societies that depend on glaciers for freshwater, it says, including a huge swath of Central Asia. It also warns of droughts, falling river flows, and danger to crops in North America and other parts of the world.

The danger is not limited to catastrophic events. Drastic fall in food production when population is still rising could cause widespread famine. (As we have seen this year, even a small drought-caused shortfall in Soviet wheat yields led to commodity speculation raising food prices as much as 50%, and adding 44 million to the world's undernourished.) The scale of climate disruption predicted by the report is many magnitudes greater. These changes would permanently affect our children's children.

According to the World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS):

  • Glacier changes constitute a key element for global climate-related monitoring.
  • On a century scale, glacier shrinking is global, fast and accelerating, with intermittent regional re-advances on a decadal scale.
  • Continued glacier melt could lead beyond historical/holocene variability and may lead to the deglaciation of many mountain regions within decades with severe impacts on human activities and welfare.

In central Asia, flood bursts from glacial lakes and sudden debris flows threaten dams, traditional food production, and lives of valley-dwellers: in July 1998, a glacier lake outburst flood in the Shahimardan Valley of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan killed over 100 people. In Peru, a 1962 avalanche travelled 16 km and destroyed the city of Ranrahirca, where 4000 people died; another in 1972 completely destroyed the city of Yungay, killing 18 000 (two of many reports in M Zemp and W Haeberli, Glaciers and Ice Caps, part 6B of Global Outlook for Ice and Snow (UNEP 2008).

Indigenous peoples throughout Asia and South America report livelihoods at risk due to climate disruption. Changes in seasonal dates upset ecosystems, in addition to more frequent storms, floods and drought. (See these eyewitness stories by elders)

Violence in eastern Africa is directly attributable to climate change.

Recent reports show the Greenland glacier melting much faster than predicted. Sea level may now rise 5 feet by the end of the century, dooming entire small nations, and causing billions of dollars of damage in coastal cities such as New York, London, and St Petersburg.

In Kenya, the snows of Kilimanjaro, famed as the title of a story by Ernest Hemingway, are disappearing at ever faster rates according to the US National Academy of Sciences

British researchers state that rising temperatures on Mt Kenya put an extra 4 million people at risk from malaria in the Central Highlands and Nairobi. 20 years ago, the area was malaria-free; unlike other regions, the sole factor is climate change. The size, urgency and cost of the problem is typical of environmental impacts in the global South caused by emissions directly attributable to the North. These impacts, and the costs of remedying them, are what the poor countries refer to as “climate debt”. Ecological debt would also include the additional costs of the North's exclusive use of food, fish, and natural resources of all kinds, at rates far exceeding our fair share.

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