Arctic melt-off: ahead of schedule

A new analysis shows that well before the century's end, it could be ice-free for part of the year.

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Hundreds of scientists and government officials from around the world are meeting in Bangkok, preparing to issue a May 4 report on what steps should be taken to combat global warming. But a new study released May 1 showed that one of the group's predictions on climate change, made in an earlier February report, may already be too conservative.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) had said that Arctic sea ice was shrinking by as much as 5.4 percent per decade. At that rate, it could disappear entirely toward the end of this century.

But new analysis from scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), both in Boulder, Colo., shows that the rate from 1953 to 2006 was more like 7.8 percent per decade. The earlier IPCC models suggested that about half the polar melting was due to global warming. The NSIDC study says greenhouse gases may play an even more significant role.

Recommended: 'Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye': 5 stories from a family's time near the Arctic

"Because of this disparity, the shrinking of summertime ice is about 30 years ahead of the [IPCC] climate model projections,'' said Ted Scambos, an NSIDC scientist, in an article by the Bloomberg news service.

Meanwhile, media reports from Bangkok indicate that the IPCC meeting had become contentious, as countries including the United States and China strove to shape the document to their liking. The report, the third of four the IPCC will issue this year, won't be binding, but it will influence actions taken by governments, including the G-8 summit of industrialized countries in June and negotiations on updating the 10-year-old Kyoto climate treaty in December, said a story from the BBC. It quoted UN Environment Programme spokesman Michael Williams as saying:

"The IPCC plays an incredibly important role in the political negotiations so people can point and say 'Look, this is what is going to happen in 50 years, these are the options available for us to take actions.'"

A Reuters correspondent talked to an unnamed delegate willing to discuss the meeting's contentious atmosphere.

"This process is agreement by exhaustion. It's not the smartest way to work out key issues which should be driving the world forward, but that's the way it's done. ... nothing is agreed until it's all agreed. That's where the negotiation by exhaustion comes in. It's the last person standing here that wins."

Renewable energy, nuclear power, biofuels, and reforestation are some of the solutions to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions that the document is likely to contain , reported the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news service. Said Peter Lukey, a delegate from South Africa:

"It's very difficult at these negotiations to try to find that level of compromise and to try to find sustainable solutions that are equitable. This is a highly politicized event ... it's highly frustrating."

As developing countries grow they must look for new and cheap fuel sources, which then add to the greenhouse-gas emissions that must be reduced if warming is to be curbed. Lalith Chandrapala, a delegate from Sri Lanka, told AFP:

"Ten years ago [our energy] was mostly hydroelectricity. Now, with the increase in power consumption ... we are going into coal. The problem is for a country like Sri Lanka, because our economy is not that strong, we can't afford anything else."

Based on its own look at an early draft, Britain's Sunday newspaper The Observer suggests that the IPCC findings would rile environmental groups if they include solutions such as greater use of nuclear power. It quoted Tony Juniper, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, as saying:

"Simply replacing one set of technologies with another set of technologies won't work, especially when there are such big downsides with some of them. Structural change to the economy, behavior change, and culture change – those have to be elements in a world of decarbonization."

No matter how the IPCC stew is cooked, the final dish will be served up as a recipe for how governments should work together. But back in Washington, at an April 30 press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Bush indicated that the United States, which did not sign the Kyoto Protocol, was more likely to continue to go it alone. MarketWatch quoted the president as saying:

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