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Press Release - Antarctica: an awakening giant?

Issue date: 19 May 2005
Number: 8/2005

The crucial role that Antarctica plays in global climate change and its future contribution to sea-level rise was highlighted today by Professor Chris Rapley, Director of British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Speaking at an international convention on climate change in Bonn, Germany* he presented a summary of the latest scientific results from Antarctica.

Professor Rapley said,
“The issue of sea-level rise is of great concern to all of us – the contribution from Antarctica is the greatest uncertainty in the sea level rise debate. The last IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - 2001) report warned that Antarctica was a ‘slumbering giant’. Recent scientific evidence leads us to believe that the giant is waking up. Policy-makers need to know what the consequences will be for society.”

Computer models suggest that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet may thicken as a result of climate change, but observations from satellites and aircraft show that two other areas are thinning. These conflicting effects and the challenge of measuring them make it difficult at present to predict the contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise, there is no doubt that its role will be significant.

In the last 50 years the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed faster than anywhere else on Earth. Predictions made by BAS scientists in 1998 that the warming threatened several ice shelves were realised in 2002 when, in less than a month, 3200 km2 of Larsen B ice shelf broke up into thousands of small icebergs. Recent research1 shows that as a result of ice shelf collapse, the glaciers that drained the peninsula have retreated1, thinned and accelerated dramatically2. BAS researchers have an urgent focus to assess how much these changes are contributing to sea level rise.

Elsewhere, satellite studies have shown that a large part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which may be prone to collapse, has been shown to be thinning. Earlier this year BAS and US National Science Foundation and the University of Texas scientists completed a huge airborne survey of this, the least explored area of the West Antarctic. The scientists flew 100 000 km collecting data that will allow better prediction of the future contribution of West Antarctica to sea level rise.

ENDS

Issued by the British Antarctic Survey Press Office.
Linda Capper – tel: ++44 1223 221448, mob: 07714 233744, email: l.capper@bas.ac.uk
Amanda Lynnes – tel: ++44 1223 221414, mob:07740 822229, email: a.lynnes@bas.ac.uk


United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Press Office +49 228 815 1005
DEFRA Press Office +44 (0)20 7238 5599

NOTES TO EDITORS:
*The side meeting, organised by DEFRA, is being held on Thursday 19 May as part of the 22nd Session of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany. The aim of the side event is to report key findings presented at the International Symposium on stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations, which was held in Exeter, UK earlier this year.

The 22nd session of the SBSTA will initiate the development of a programme of work on adaptation to climate change impacts; it will receive a newly adopted Special Report on safeguarding the ozone layer and the global climate system prepared by the IPCC and the scientific advisory body to the Montreal Protocol – TEAP. It will consider the growth of emissions from international aviation and feature special events on mitigation policies and measures and technology innovation.

In 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) predicted future sea level rise on the assumption that the Antarctic ice sheet would not make a significant contribution over the next one hundred years. Recent data from the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in Antarctica suggest that this area is making a contribution, but whether this is a short-term fluctuation, or a result of recent or ancient climate change, is an open question. Our ability to predict the future of this part of the West Antarctic ice sheet is limited and basic information such as the ice sheet thickness and conditions beneath the ice at bedrock are required to build numerical models that will allow robust prediction.

1Cook, A., A.J. Fox, D.G. Vaughan, and J.G. Ferrigno, Retreating glacier-fronts on the Antarctic Peninsula over the last 50 years, Science, 22, 541-544, 2005.
De Angelis, H., and P. Skvarca, Glacier surge after ice shelf collapse, Science, 299 (5612), 1560?1562, 2003.

2Scambos, T.A., J.A. Bohlander, C.A. Shuman, and P. Skvarca, Glacier acceleration and thinning after ice shelf collapse in the Larsen B embayment, Antarctica, Geophysical Research Letters, 31 (18), art. no.-L18402, 2004.

British Antarctic Survey is a world leader in research into global issues in an Antarctic context. It is the UK’s national operator and is a component of the Natural Environment Research Council. It has an annual budget of around £40 million, runs nine research programmes and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica. More information about the work of the Survey can be found at: www.antarctica.ac.uk


Chris Rapley:
Prof Chris Rapley CBE is Director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Prior to this he was for four years the Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. This followed an extended period as Professor of Remote Sensing Science and Associate Director of University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory. He has a first degree in physics from Oxford, a M.Sc. in radioastronomy from Manchester University, and a Ph.D. in X-ray astronomy from University College London.

He has been a Principal Investigator on both NASA and European Space Agency satellite missions and is a member of the NASA JPL Cassini mission Science Team. He has been a member of numerous national and international committees and boards including Vice President of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research and Chair of the International Council for Science's (ICSU) International Polar Year 2007-2008 (IPY) Planning Group.

He is currently a member of the European Polar Board's Executive and ICSU - World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) Joint Committee for IPY. He is a Fellow of St Edmund's College Cambridge, and is an Honorary Professor at University College London and at the University of East Anglia.