Global disaster will follow if the ice cap on Greenland melts. Now scientists say it is vanishing far faster than even they expected
Greenland's glaciers have begun to race towards the ocean, leading scientists to predict that the vast island's ice cap is approaching irreversible meltdown, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.
Research to be published in a few days' time shows how glaciers that have been stable for centuries have started to shrink dramatically as temperatures in the Arctic have soared with global warming. On top of this, record amounts of the ice cap's surface turned to water this summer.
The two developments - the most alarming manifestations of climate change to date - suggest that the ice cap is melting far more rapidly than scientists had thought, with immense consequences for civilisation and the planet. Its complete disappearance would raise the levels of the world's seas by 20 feet, spelling inundation for London and other coastal cities around the globe, along with much of low-lying countries such as Bangladesh.
More immediately, the vast amount of fresh water discharged into the ocean as the ice melts threatens to shut down the Gulf Stream, which protects Britain and the rest of northern Europe from a freezing climate like that of Labrador.
The revelations, which follow the announcement that the melting of sea ice in the Arctic also reached record levels this summer, come as the world's governments are about to embark on new negotiations about how to combat global warming.
This week they will meet in Montreal for the first formal talks on whether there should be a new international treaty on cutting the pollution that causes climate change after the Kyoto protocol expires in seven years' time. Writing in The Independent yesterday, Tony Blair called the meeting "crucial", adding that it "must start to shape an inclusive global solution". But little progress is expected, largely because of continued obstruction from President George Bush.
The new evidence from Greenland, to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, shows a sudden decline in the giant Helheim glacier, a river of ice that grinds down from the inland ice cap to the sea through a narrow rift in the mountain range on the island's east coast.
Professor Slawek Tulaczyk, of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told the IoS that the glacier had dropped 100 feet this summer.
Over the past four years, the research adds, the front of the glacier - which has remained in the same place since records began - has retreated four and a half miles. As it has retreated and thinned, the effects have spread inland "very fast indeed", says Professor Tulaczyk. As the centre of the Greenland ice cap is only 150 miles away, the researchers fear that it, too, will soon be affected.
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