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CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE POLAR REGIONS: DOES IT MATTER?

The consequences of global warming may not be immediately obvious to us, living as we do in a temperate climate. However, the Met Office attribute the increasing frequency and severity of storms to more energy in the atmosphere as the Earth’s surface warms up, but other changes in Britain are more subtle. In contrast, it is in the polar regions that climatic changes are unmistakable, as warming there is twice the global average, so we must be concerned about rising sea levels from glacier melt.

I recently visited the Antarctic Peninsula as a lecturer and guide on an expedition cruise ship, where my role was to introduce passengers to geology, glaciers and climate change. The changes we observed are dramatic. The British Antarctic Survey has shown that 95% of the glaciers in the region are receding. Furthermore, a succession of ice shelves has collapsed in the last 30 years, and one of the last big ones remaining in the Peninsula, Larsen A, is now showing signs of cracking up. As ice shelves disappear, the interior ice flows into the sea much faster, adding to sea-level rise.

During my own voyage, we experienced sustained positive temperatures and heavy rain, when normally you would expect snow. Seeing lots of bedraggled penguin chicks, before they had fledged did not inspire confidence that many would survive. However, species have a way of adapting. The iconic Adélie penguins, a solely Antarctic species, are vacating their more northern nesting sites and moving south, but are being replaced by their Gentoo penguin cousins, which are more tolerant of warmer conditions.

Globally, from all sources, sea level is rising at an accelerating rate, and is now 3 millimetres a year. It may not sound much, but that’s double what it was 30 years ago. Scientists predict a sea-level rise of 0.95 metres by 2100. Many areas of Britain will become vulnerable to coastal flooding, and the consequences globally will be catastrophic.

 

Kesmail May 2017

penguinskesmail72017

An Adélie penguin (left) is confronted by a Gentoo penguin (right), while the two species compete for rookery rights.