UNEP Report Analyzes Ice Melt Threats

June 6, 2007

To mark World Environment Day, the United Nations Environment Program has issued a new report – “Melting Ice-A Hot Topic?” – that outlines the possible dire consequences for millions, perhaps billions of people as the world’s Arctic ice packs, permafrost and glaciers continue to melt.

“Impacts are likely to include significant changes in the availability of water supplies for drinking and agriculture, rising sea levels affecting low lying coasts and islands and an increase in hazards such as subsidence of currently frozen land,” said UNEP’s bulletin.

It’s estimated that up to “40 per cent of the world’s population could be affected by loss of snow and glaciers on the mountains of Asia,” according to the report. Similar challenges are facing countries, communities, farmers and power generators in the Alps to the Andes and the Pyrenees.

The report – available at: www.unep.org – details the many consequences posed by the massive melting. A by no means exhaustive list includes:
— Increasing threats from “avalanches and floods from the build up of potentially unstable glacial lakes;
— rising temperatures and the thawing of frozen land or ‘permafrost,’ which is already ‘triggering the expansion of existing- and the emergence of new- water bodies in places like Siberia.
— bubbling methane into the atmosphere with emissions so forceful they can keep holes open on the lakes’ icy surfaces even during sub zero winter months.
— less snow and sea ice are leading to more of the sun’s heat being absorbed by the land and the polar oceans which in turn may speed up global climate change. These are among the ‘feedbacks’ which some experts fear could trigger even faster or more abrupt climatic changes with even wider-ranging impacts on people, economies and wildlife.

The report points out that “many indigenous peoples lack the financial resources and technology needed to adapt. While, many parts of the world currently remain ill prepared for the likely pace of climatic change.”

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, acknowledged that, while the report may “seem to address issues from remote and far away places,” it nonetheless “underlines that fate of the world’s snowy and icy places in a climatically challenged world should be cause for concern in every ministry, boardroom and living room across the world.”

Steiner cited the findings, published earlier this year, of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (available on line at www.ipcc.ch; see also IJ web site Feb. 2, April 6 and 7). Among its many conclusions, the IPCC report rather optimistically said that addressing the problem is not insurmountable. “The bill may be less than 0.1 per cent of global GDP a year,” Steiner stated. “So overcoming the climate change challenge is the bargain of the century. The missing link is universal political action,” he added.

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