Image: Antarctica
Charles J. Hanley  /  AP
A member of a group of environment ministers and other officials gazes up at monumental rock towers rising from 1,500-foot-deep ice sheets near the Norwegian Troll Research Station in Antarctica on Monday. The group flew in to learn from scientists about whether and how global warming may melt Antarctic ice, raising sea levels.
updated 2/23/2009 6:23:04 PM ET 2009-02-23T23:23:04

Policymakers met polar explorers on the boundless ice of Antarctica Monday as a U.S.-Norwegian scientific expedition came in from the cold to report on the continent's ice sheets, a potential source for a catastrophic "big melt" from global warming.

"Our preliminary finding is that there's a slight warming trend in East Antarctica," American glaciologist Ted Scambos told the group of visiting environment ministers.

It was an early estimate regarding just one region of a huge continent, drawn from first analyses of ice cores drilled along the team's route. But it caught the ear of the visiting politicians, who are this year weighing a grand new global deal for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to avert the worst of climate change.

"It's important to hear the latest science," said Hilary Benn, Britain's environment minister. "I was impressed that they're finding temperatures rising. But there is still so much not known."

The 12-member Norwegian-American Scientific Traverse of East Antarctica was a leading project in the 2007-2009 International Polar Year (IPY). It is a mobilization of 10,000 scientists and 40,000 others from more than 60 countries engaged in intense Arctic and Antarctic research over the past two southern summer seasons — on the ice, at sea, via icebreaker, submarine and surveillance satellite.

Learning more about historic temperature trends has been a prime concern in examining whether global warming — already occurring elsewhere on the planet — might cause Antarctica's huge store of ice to start melting, raising sea levels, potentially to a disastrous point for coastal cities and shorelines worldwide.

Warming trend suspected
Speaking to the environment ministers over breakfast, Kim Holmen, research director for the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Troll station's operator, noted that scientists had generally thought Antarctica as a whole was not warming in recent decades. But a recent study in the journal Nature shook that view.

"This new analysis shows us actually the whole of Antarctica has been warming," Holmen said.

The preliminary finding from the on-the-ground Traverse expedition — if it is confirmed — would reinforce that Nature study, which extrapolated temperature trends by blending satellite information with scarce weather-station data available in and around Antarctica.

By drilling deep cores into the annual layers of ice sheet in this little-explored region, the trekkers from the South Pole were also gathering important data on how much snow has fallen historically.

Such work will be combined with another IPY project, an all-out effort to map by satellite radar information about Antarctic ice sheets over the past two summers, an attempt to assess how fast ice is being pushed into the surrounding sea.

Then scientists may understand better the "mass balance" — how much the snow, originating with ocean evaporation, is offsetting the ice pouring seaward. That, in turn, would help them judge how fast and high ocean levels may rise from Antarctic melt.

Since Antarctica accounts for 90 percent of the world's ice, "a small change in accumulation rate in this area could lead to significant sea-level rise," Tom Neumann, American leader of the Traverse, told the ministers.

The visitors also included the environment ministers of Algeria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Norway and Sweden. Other countries were represented by climate policymakers and negotiators, including Xie Zhenhua of China and Dan Reifsnyder, a deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state.

Engaging debate
During their long day here under the brilliant 17-hour sunlight of a dying southern summer, when the temperature still dropped to -20 degrees Celsius (near-zero Fahrenheit), the group traveled by snow tractor over the 1,500-foot-deep ice sheet to stand in awe before Judulsessen, a jagged wall of towering peaks in the 8,000-foot-high Gjelsvik Mountains.

It was a spectacular finish to four days together for the ministers, whose original two-day weekend visit was shortened to a Monday day trip after rough Antarctic weather repeatedly canceled their flight in.

During their stranded weekend in Cape Town, South Africa, 3,000 miles to the north, they spent hours behind closed doors discussing and debating the global climate negotiations, with the help of chief U.N. climate scientist Rajendra Pachauri and Britain's Lord Nicholas Stern, an expert on the economics of climate change.

Erik Solheim, Norway's environment minister and sponsor of the unusual trip, clearly hoped the informal atmosphere might help smooth the difficult, ongoing formal talks.

"It was an extraordinary concentration of people," said Martin Bursik, the Czech environment minister. "And the quality of the debate was extraordinary."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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