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Arctic Warming Threatens Future Of The Planet

New U.S. Government Report Renews Urgency of New Global Climate Treaty, says WWF

WASHINGTON DC, December 16, 2008 – A report issued by the U.S. government today shows that rising temperatures in the Arctic could have disastrous impacts on the rest of the planet beyond what had previously been projected, reinforcing the urgency for a new global climate treaty, said officials with World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

According to the report “Abrupt Climate Change” from the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP), additional warming in the Arctic could cause sea levels to rise substantially beyond scientists’ previous predictions and could result in massive releases of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide.

“These findings offer a startling view of climate change in the Arctic and the profound impact it may already be having on the future of the entire planet,” said Dr. Richard Moss, vice president for WWF’s Climate Change Program and previously head of the CCSP coordination office. “World governments just concluded two weeks of climate treaty negotiations in Poland with a disappointing lack of progress. As negotiations continue over the course of the coming year, this report should provide a much-needed sense of urgency to help reach agreement next December in Copenhagen.”

The CCSP report found that even relatively small temperature changes in the Arctic could set in motion a chain of events that could greatly accelerate changes to the global climate, and is “likely to have adverse consequences for highly vulnerable Arctic and global ecosystems and negative impacts on human activities, including costly damage to infrastructure.”

Other key findings included:

  • Recent rapid declines in ice volume in Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are likely to continue and will likely result in sea level rise scenarios that “substantially exceed” the predictions made by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.
  • Climate change will likely increase the Arctic’s “chronic emissions” of methane, a gas whose warming potential is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide. The rate of methane release in the north could double and “much larger increases cannot be discounted.”
  • Model scenarios indicate that drier conditions in the subtropics are more likely.  “This projected drying extends poleward into the United States Southwest, potentially increasing the likelihood of severe and persistent drought there in the future. If the model results are correct then this drying may already have begun.”

The report was discussed today in San Francisco during the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), the world’s largest gathering of Earth Scientists. In sessions co-organized by Dr. Martin Sommerkorn, WWF’s senior Arctic climate change advisor, scientists provided details on measurements of methane gas escaping from the ocean near Siberia, accelerated melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic sea ice, and changes to the tundra that increase carbon losses to the atmosphere. 

“The Arctic is a regulator of the earth’s climate,” said Sommerkorn. “We are seeing troubling signs that the dramatic changes in that region threaten the rest of the planet.”

The research discussed at the AGU meeting, together with the findings in the CCSP report, highlight the urgency of immediate action by the global community, said Moss,

“We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions and intensify national and international preparations for impacts if we are to manage the risks of climate change,” Moss said. “President-elect Obama’s proposals for returning to 1990 levels by 2020 are an important first step, but additional reductions will be required to reduce the probability of suffering the impacts described in these reports. In addition, the administration will also need to improve monitoring systems and the quality of information from the federal science program for planning adaptation measures.”

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