December 8th, 2007 by Joshua S Hill
The award winning UN Climate Panel that took home this year’s Nobel Peace Prize (along with Al Gore) hopes to look towards the mysteries of Greenland. After three successive overall reports, released in 1995, 2001 and 2007, the panel may look towards more specific research targets.
One of these is the effect a thaw of the Greenland ice-sheet could have upon the world.
Dutch scientist Bert Metz, a senior member of the panel, said that the risks of an accelerated ice-melt in Greenland were among the unsolved issues in the most recent report. “There are still questions about the behavior of the big ice sheets, like Greenland, and the consequences of sea level rise,” he told Reuters.
One of the major issues that have recently been brought to scientist’s attention is the risk of great chunks of the Greenland ice-sheet falling in to the ocean. This poses problems unlooked for, compared to a slow melt of surface ice.
Recent research conducted in Antarctica has shown the terrible effects caused by global warming. Instead of a runoff in to the ocean the ice-melt acts like droplets of acid on paper; they work their way down through the ice-sheet and pool beneath it. This not only degrades the integrity of the sheet, but provides lubrication. The end result, as witnessed on the Antarctic Peninsula recently, is a massive break off of ice in to the surrounding waters.
The UN Intergovernmental Panel is currently awaiting the OK from their governments, for funding for new research projects. “There are voices that say we should postpone a global overview a bit and in the meantime do more focused special reports,” said Metz, who will be one of the 25 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize awarded on December the 10th.
The reports conducted by the IPCC believes that sea-levels will rise between 18 and 59 centimeters (7-23 inches) this century alone, but they do not take into consideration an accelerated Greenland melt, nor a melt of large areas of Antarctica, which is much less likely.
A few years ago “we thought a thaw of Greenland might happen but it would take thousands and thousands of years — ‘this chunk of ice will melt gradually from the outside’,” Metz said. “But now the latest information is that there may be different mechanisms, of water going down into crevasses and acting as a lubricant” beneath large areas of ice, he said.
The main risk, even greater than an unexpected rise of sea levels, is the effect such an event could have on the Gulf Stream.
At the end of the last ice-age when the North American Laurentide ice sheet retreated northwards, it left behind a great pool of freshwater. This inland ocean was the formation for the Great Lakes, but not until a great majority of the water spilled out in to the North Atlantic. The influx of freshwater stopped the Gulf Stream, which caused a brief cold period for Europe known primarily as the Younger Dryas.
The threat at hand today is that an influx of low-salinity water from chunks of ice off the Greenland ice-sheet could once again cause problems for the Gulf Stream. This could create a pocket-cooling across Europe, while the rest of the planet warms.
The latest IPCC report states that such a shutdown of the Gulf Stream is “very unlikely” but that the risks beyond that eventuality cannot be confidently reckoned.
Reuters via ENN – Greenland ice could be next puzzle for U.N. panel
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