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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

4th International Polar Year (IPY) finds accelerated mass loss of Antarctica and Greenland Ice Sheets raising sea level

Polar regions found warming fast, raising sea levels

Posted 2009/02/25 at 12:17 pm EST

GENEVA, Feb. 25, 2009 (Reuters) — The Arctic and Antarctic regions are warming faster than previously thought, raising world sea levels and making drastic global climate change more likely than ever, international scientists said on Wednesday.

An undated handout photo from the Center for Northern Studies shows the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf disintegrating. REUTERS/Denis Sarrazin/Center for Northern Studies/Handout

New evidence of the trend was uncovered by wide-ranging research in the two areas over the past two years in a United Nations-backed program dubbed the International Polar Year (IPY), they said.

"Snow and ice are declining in both polar regions, affecting human livelihoods as well as local plant and animal life in the Arctic as well as global atmospheric circulation and sea-level," according to a summary of a report by the researchers.

An assessment of the findings of the research was still being refined, said the IPY's "State of Polar Research" report.

"But it now appears certain that both the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets are losing mass and thus raising sea level, and that the rate of ice loss from Greenland is growing," it said.

"New data also confirm that warming in the Antarctic is much more widespread than it was thought prior to IPY."

More than 63 countries and some 10,000 scientists took part in the $1.5 billion program, which began in March 2007 and ends next month.

IPY experts told a news conference that melting appeared to be speeding up, especially in the Western Antarctic region that stretches to near the southern tip of Latin America and which had earlier been thought stable.

"One could expect to see quite dramatic changes in weather in Chile and Argentina as a result," said Ian Allison, a co-chairman of the program's steering committee.

Such a trend would be felt around the world.

David Carlson, director of IPY's international program office, said levels of salt in the sea around the Antarctic were growing, indicating that the continent's underlying ice shelves were melting.

But the experts said the exact speed of these developments was difficult to measure, and the global effect they were likely to have impossible to predict accurately given the current research tools available.

The overall global warming trend has long been tracked by another U.N.-sponsored body, the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). The mandate of the IPY, which is linked with the IPCC, was to focus on what is happening around the poles.

Like the IPCC, the IPY experts said even a relatively small rise in sea-levels could threaten huge populations of cities in low-lying coastal areas, mainly in developing countries but in Europe and North America as well.

The report said research under the IPY had revealed larger-than-expected pools of carbon in Arctic permafrost, or frozen terrain, which further warming could release into the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gas.

But it gave no estimates of the size of these pools.

While the challenges to funding posed by the economic crisis, the report said governments need to keep pumping money into North and South Pole research in order to keep tabs on global warming pressures.

It was the fourth internationally coordinated scientific program on the polar regions, following previous efforts undertaken in 1882-83, 1932-33 and 1957-58.

The IPY was organized by the independent International Council for Science and the U.N.'s World Meteorological Organization (WMO).

(Editing by Katie Nguyen)

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