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by Julio Godoy

Ice Caps In Africa, S America Likely To Disappear Soon (2001)

(IPS) BERLIN -- The peak of the Stubai Mountains in the Austrian Alps has vanished. It was around a couple of months back, but since then no one can say exactly when it disappeared.

"One day, the mountain top was simply gone," says Gunther Heissel, director of the Austrian Research Center for Alpine Geology in Innsbruck, about 450km from capital Vienna. Earlier television footage confirmed that the peak was once there, and now is not.

"The glaciers on the Alpine mountains flow 20 centimetres a day due to the melting of permafrost," Heissel told IPS. The pace of the melting is believed to be at least partly a consequence of global warming.

Permafrost is soil that has remained frozen for more than two years. "If it melts down to water, then when the temperatures fall back under zero, it freezes again," says Heissel. "And as ice grows in volume, it cracks the rocks, thus taking away the grounding, and provoking landslides."

Similar phenomena are occurring in other Alpine regions, but also in Alaska, Canada, Norway, Russia and the South Pole, Heissel said.

In a summary report for policy makers released last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that "temperatures at the top of the permafrost layer have generally increased since the 1980s in the Arctic (by up to three Celsius degrees). The maximum area covered by seasonally frozen ground has decreased by about seven percent in the northern hemisphere since 1900, with a decrease in spring of up to 15 percent."

The IPCC is the scientific body tasked with evaluating the risk of climate change caused by human activity. It was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).

In its 2007 reports the IPCC said "most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-twentieth century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations." This increase is caused by the burning of fossil combustibles in automobiles, industry, heating, electricity generation, agriculture and other energy consuming activities.

According to the Swiss National Research Program on the Alpine Landscapes and Habitats (GISALP, after its German name), by the year 2050, more than half of all Swiss glaciers could melt, coming down from today's 45 to 20.

This melting would also affect glaciers on the Bernina range at a height of more than 4,000 metres, one of the highest Alpine summits, Wilfried Haeberli, director of GISALP and of the Physical Geography Division at the University of Zurich, told IPS.

Every project in the Alps will have to take into consideration the prospect of destruction, says Haeberli. "Conventional ways will not help deal with the melting of permafrost," he said. "We will have to incorporate it and its consequences into all our planning."

About 650 climate researchers made similar warnings last week in Hamburg, 300 km west of Berlin. The scientists were participating in the third world Extreme Weather Congress.

Nicole Wilke, chief German negotiator before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which leads the international negotiations on a new treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, told the congress that without a dramatic change in human behavior, global average temperatures would rise 6.3 degrees by 2100.

International negotiations towards a treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change aim to limit temperature rise this century to two degrees.

"On average, Europe is warmer now than 100 years ago," said Christian Schoenwiese, professor of meteorology at the University of Frankfurt. Schoenwiese said the weather change is most evident at hot spots. "In the Scandinavian regions, the average temperature in winter has risen by three degrees since 1950. And in southern France the summer is warmer by two degrees."

Such phenomena could lead to eventual disappearance of islands such as the Frisian Islands, an archipelago in the North Sea just off the north-western German coast, Schoenwiese said. "I would not be surprized if they would one day drown in the sea." The time horizon for such an event, he added, "is not centuries, but decades."

The Frisian island Sylt is said to have lost at least 800,000 cubic metres of sand from its beaches in 2006-2007 because of heavy storms and flooding during the autumn and winter.

Participants at the congress also made projections about the economic cost of climate change. In Germany alone, according to a study by the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW), climate change would produce losses or costs up to 800 billion euros (1,200 billion dollars).

Claudia Kemfert, director of energy research at the DIW said this estimate included consequential damages in agriculture, in energy generation, and devastation caused by events like stronger storms, floods and water scarcity.

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Albion Monitor   April 7, 2008   (

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