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Arctic Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise May Pose Imminent Threat To Island Nations, Climate Scientist Says

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This Sept. 16, 2012, image released by NASA shows the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic, at center in white, and the 1979 to 2000 average extent for the day shown, with the yellow line. Scientists say sea ice in the Arctic shrank to an all-time low of 1.32 million square miles on Sept. 16, smashing old records for the critical climate indicator. (AP Photo/U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, File)
This Sept. 16, 2012, image released by NASA shows the amount of summer sea ice in the Arctic, at center in white, and the 1979 to 2000 average extent for the day shown, with the yellow line. Scientists say sea ice in the Arctic shrank to an all-time low of 1.32 million square miles on Sept. 16, smashing old records for the critical climate indicator. (AP Photo/U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, File)

Low-lying island nations threatened by rising sea levels this century could see the disastrous consequences of climate change far sooner than expected, according to one of the world's leading climate scientists.

In the wake of last month's discovery that the extent of Arctic sea ice coverage hit a record low this year, climate scientist Michael Mann told the Guardian that "Island nations that have considered the possibility of evacuation at some point, like Tuvalu, may have to be contending those sort of decisions within the matter of a decade or so."

Mann, who is the director of Pennsylvania State University's Earth System Science Center, said that current melting trends show sea ice is "declining faster than the models predict."

"The models have typically predicted that will not happen for decades but the measurements that are coming in tell us it is already happening so once again we are decades ahead of schedule," Mann told the Guardian.

This year's record melting, which occurred under more "normal" conditions than the previous record set in 2007, left Arctic sea ice at a minimum "nearly 50 percent lower than the average ... for the years 1979-2000," according to Climate Central.

Rapidly decreasing sea ice suggests that the melting of polar ice sheets may occur more rapidly than previously predicted. Mann explained to the Guardian that "we [will] really start to see sea level rises accelerate," as the Greenland and the west Antarctic ice sheets disappear. Unlike with the melting of sea ice, these ice sheets would introduce vast quantities of water into the world's oceans, making them "critical from the standpoint of sea level rise," according to Mann.

The ongoing rise in average global temperatures, which has accelerated Arctic ice melt, has been largely attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and the resultant increase in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.

For the most vulnerable island nations, like the Maldives, Kiribati, the Torres Strait Islands and many others, rising seas will bring significant coastal erosion and saltwater contamination of limited freshwater supplies. Environmental group Oceana recently noted that nations dependent upon the sea will face food security threats as greater temperatures and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide increase ocean acidity and put marine life at risk.

Despite the increasingly clear picture painted by scientific observations and climate modeling, "There's a huge gap between what is understood by the scientific community and what is known by the public," according to NASA scientist James Hansen. Recent polling suggests that as much as 35 percent of the U.S. population and 37 percent of the British public remain unconvinced of the scientific reality of climate change.

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