The ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica have awakened and are melting faster than expected, a leading expert told peers ahead of a conference of ministers from nations with Arctic territory.
Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, an expert with the Center for Ice and Climate at the University of Copenhagen, told the conference in the Arctic town of Tromsoe that the need for a wake-up call was genuine for the polar and glacial regions.
"Antarctica and Greenland have been sleeping until now," she said. "Now they are awakening giants."
The flow of melting ice into the oceans has picked up, and at the current pace sea levels will have risen by three feet by the end of the century, she added. The U.N. backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had earlier estimated sea levels would rise by a foot over the century.
The conference of experts was held the day before a meeting of the Arctic Council of foreign ministers. The council members are the United States, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland and Norway.
Among those attending the conference Tuesday was former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who urged quick action "because we don't want to cross this tipping point" of melting ice sheets.
Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo for his campaign to draw attention to global warming, said there was a danger of permafrost melting. He said that would thaw vast amounts of organic matter that microorganisms would then turn into climate damaging methane gas, doubling current levels of climate gases.
"As difficult as this challenge is to solve now, it would be twice as difficult if you waited until this (permafrost) thawed," he said.
Gore said carbon dioxide and methane remain the greatest challenges, but that another pollutant, black carbon — or soot — from diesel engines and fires also is a threat. It blackens snow and ice, trapping heat and accelerating the melt.
However, Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere, who co-hosted the meeting with Gore, said soot could be reduced quickly and regionally.
"It might give regions of ice and snow a chance to survive long enough for greenhouse gas reductions to have an impact," Stoere said.