Island Made By Global Warming
By Michael McCarthy
24 April, 2007
map of Greenland will have to be redrawn. A new island has appeared
off its coast, suddenly separated from the mainland by the melting of
Greenland's enormous ice sheet, a development that is being seen as
the most alarming sign of global warming.
Several miles long, the island
was once thought to be the tip of a peninsula halfway up Greenland's
remote east coast but a glacier joining it to the mainland has melted
away completely, leaving it surrounded by sea.
Shaped like a three-fingered
hand some 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle, it has been discovered
by a veteran American explorer and Greenland expert, Dennis Schmitt,
who has named it Warming Island (Or Uunartoq Qeqertoq in Inuit, the
Eskimo language, that he speaks fluently).
The US Geological Survey
has confirmed its existence with satellite photos, that show it as an
integral part of the Greenland coast in 1985, but linked by only a small
ice bridge in 2002, and completely separate by the summer of 2005. It
is now a striking island of high peaks and rugged rocky slopes plunging
steeply to a sea dotted with icebergs.
As the satellite pictures
and the main photo which we publish today make clear, Warming Island
has been created by a quite undeniable, rapid and enormous physical
transformation and is likely to be seen around the world as a potent
symbol of the coming effects of climate change.
But it is only one more example
of the disintegration of the Greenland Ice Sheet, that scientists have
begun to realise, only very recently, is proceeding far more rapidly
than anyone thought.
The second-largest ice sheet
in the world (after Antarctica), if its entire 2.5 million cubic kilometres
of ice were to melt, it would lead to a global sea level rise of 7.2
metres, or more than 23 feet.
That would inundate most
of the world's coastal cities, including London, swamp vast areas of
heavily-populated low-lying land in countries such as Bangladesh, and
remove several island countries such as the Maldives from the face of
the Earth. However, even a rise one tenth as great would have devastating
Sea level rise is already
accelerating. Sea levels are going up around the world by about 3.1mm
per year - the average for the period 1993-2003. That is itself sharply
up from an average of 1.8mm per year over the longer period 1961-2003.
Greenland ice now accounts for about 0.5 millimetre of the total. (Much
of the rest of the rise is coming from the expansion of the world's
sea water as it warms.)
Until two or three years
ago, it was thought that the break-up of the ice sheet might take 1,000
years or more but a series of studies and alarming observations since
2004 have shown the disintegration is accelerating and, as a consequence,
sea level rise may be much quicker than anticipated.
Earlier computer models,
researchers believe, failed to capture properly the way the ice sheet
would respond to major warming (over the past 20 years, Greenland's
air temperature has risen by 3C). The 2001 report of the UN's Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change was relatively reassuring, suggesting change
would be slow.
But satellite measurements
of Greenland's entire land mass show that the speed at which its glaciers
are moving to the sea has increased significantly in the past decade,
with some of them moving three times faster than in the mid-1990s.
Scientists estimate that,
in 1996, glaciers deposited about 50 cubic km of ice into the sea. In
2005, it had risen to 150 cubic km of ice.
A study last year by the
Jet Propulsion Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology
showed that, rather than just melting relatively slowly, the ice sheet
is showing all the signs of a mechanical break-up as glaciers slip ever
faster into the ocean, aided by the "lubricant" of meltwater
forming at their base. As the meltwater seeps down it lubricates the
bases of the "outlet" glaciers of the ice sheet, causing them
to slip down surrounding valleys towards the sea,
Another discovery has been
the increase in "glacial earthquakes" caused by the sudden
movement of enormous blocks of ice within the ice sheet. The annual
number of them recorded in Greenland between 1993 and 2002 was between
six and 15. In 2003, seismologists recorded 20 glacial earthquakes.
In 2004, they monitored 24 and for the first 10 months of 2005 they
recorded 32. The seismologists also found the glacial earthquakes occurred
mainly during the summer months, indicating the movements were indeed
associated with rapidly melting ice - normal "tectonic" earthquakes
show no such seasonality. Of the 136 glacial quakes analysed in a report
published last year, more than a third occurred during July and August.
The creation of Warming Island
appears to be entirely consistent with the disintegrating ice sheet,
coming about when the glacier bridge linking it to the mainland simply
disappeared. It was discovered by Mr Schmitt, a 60-year-old explorer
from Berkeley, California, who has known Greenland for 40 years, during
a trip he led up the remote coastline.
According to the US Geological
Survey: "More islands like this may be discovered if the Greenland
Ice Sheet continues to disappear."
A self-governing dependency
of Denmark, Greenland is the largest island in the world but is inhabited
by only 56,000 people, mainly Inuit. More than 80 per cent of the land
surface is covered by the ice sheet.
© 2007 Independent News
and Media Limited
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