- Ice cap showing record shrinkage
- Acts as mirror to deflect sun's rays
- Gore warns of climate refugees
CLIMATE guru Al Gore warned UN climate talks today that record melting of Polar and Himalayan ice could deprive more than a billion people of access to clean water.
Adding to an avalanche of bad scientific news over the past two years, the former US vice-president cited new research showing the Arctic ice cap may have shrunk to record-low levels last year.
"2008 had a smaller minimum, probably, than 2007," Mr Gore said at the release of a report he co-sponsored with the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Store, called Melting Snow and Ice: A call for Action.
"These figures are fresh, I just got them yesterday," Mr Gore said, alluding to work led by Wieslaw Maslowski of the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
"Some of the models suggest to Dr Maslowski that there is a 75 per cent chance that the entire polar ice cap during some of summer months could be completely ice-free within five to seven years," Mr Gore said.
Scientists reported last September that Arctic ice cover - which helps beat back the sun's heat-delivering rays back into space - had reversed course after 2007, when it had shrunk to its smallest size ever.
But when measured by volume, the 4.5 million sq km area in 2008 was actually smaller than the year before.
The Arctic ice cover does not affect sea levels, but is a critically important barrier to global warming.
Intact, its white surface acts as a mirror, but when the ice disappears it becomes a sponge.
"Instead of 85 per cent of the solar energy being reflected, 85 is absorbed in the Arctic Ocean," Mr Gore, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work on warning of the threat posed by climate change, said.
Co-author Robert Corell pointed to another threat: the massive, accelerating loss of mass - measured in hundreds of billions of tonnes per year - from icesheets in Greenland and Antarctica.
Combined with the expansion of ocean water due to global warming, the continent-sized icesheets are now set to contribute to a global sea level rise of about a metre by the end of the century, double the mid-point prediction of the UN's benchmark science report in 2007.
"A one metre rise equals 100 million people who will have to move, one hundred million environmental refugees,'' Mr Corell said.
"We have woken giants,'' Arctic ice specialist Dorothe Dahl-Jensen said in presenting a second report on Greenland from the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme.
"This is really scary. This really shakes us scientists.
"These icesheets are enormous."
Greenland's ice block holds enough frozen water to lift seas seven metres, while West Antarctica could add another five metres to the global water mark.
Ms Dahl-Jensen said the pace at which some glaciers on the west coast of Greenland were "calving'', or falling into the sea, has sped up dramatically over the last decade.
"This is by far the fastest flowing ice we have ever dreamed of," she said.
"This is a rate of loss that we have never seen before."
Both scientists pointed out that all of these impacts had been unleashed by a less than 1C increase of global temperatures since pre-industrial times.
"Current proposals from individual countries for their own actions would lead to a temperature increase of approximately 3.8C'', by the end of the century, Mr Corell said.