Climate change

The hot issue of a melting Antarctica

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2007, 12:00am

Ban Ki-moon has ventured where no UN secretary general has gone before - to Antarctica last Friday. After his visit, he warned that the icy continent was 'on the verge of catastrophe' that could trigger a sharp rise in sea level and major flooding of coastal lowlands around the world.

Mr Ban is trying to build support for more effective international action to tackle climate change. His trip was part of a political ecotour through Latin America. From there, he will go to Spain and Bali over the next few weeks. In the Spanish city of Valencia on Saturday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will release its latest summary report on the causes, impacts, mitigation measures and remedies for climate change.

But the bigger and more important issue is what the international community will do about global warming. In Bali next month, UN member states will try to hammer out terms for a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Antarctica is currently controversial for two reasons. First, as sea ice recedes around the North Pole, countries bordering the Arctic Ocean are making competing claims to adjacent subsea territory that is thought to contain vast reserves of oil and natural gas.

Similar jostling has started in the Antarctic. Britain last month said it was considering lodging a claim to territorial rights over an area of the continental shelf off Antarctica. Argentina and Chile immediately confirmed that they have overlapping claims. Other countries, including Russia, Australia, New Zealand, France and Norway, have already lodged claims or reserved the right to do so. China has said it will build a third research station on the continent and expand its scientific presence there. However, these claims are overshadowed by a second, more urgent controversy - the extent to which the vast ice sheet that entombs nearly all of the continent and extends offshore is melting and contributing to rising sea levels.

The potential for global catastrophe is clear. The world's only two continental ice sheets, Antarctica and Greenland, contain over half the total amount of fresh water and around 99 per cent of freshwater ice on Earth. A report commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said that the level of oceans and seas would rise by about 64 metres if the present mass of ice in Antarctica and Greenland melted completely. Antarctica alone would account for nearly 57 metres of the rise. Although the scientists added that this could take hundreds or even thousands of years, 'recent observations show a marked increase in ice-sheet contributions to sea-level rise'.

The latest IPCC assessment report projects a sea-level rise by the end of this century of between 18cm and 59cm. A major uncertainty is the contribution that ice-sheet melting may make. Some scientists, worried by what they see in Greenland and Antarctica, believe that 21st-century sea-level rises might exceed IPCC projections and be as large as 1.4 metres.

Of the major inhabited continents, Asia would be most seriously affected. The UNEP report said that a one-metre rise in sea level would inundate over 800 sq km of low-lying land with a population of more than 100 million, slicing US$450 billion from the region's gross domestic product.

Michael Richardson is a security specialist at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This is a personal comment.