05/03/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated Jul 03, 2011

The World's Most Dangerous Doubt

London, Bangkok, Cairo, and Venice would be critically endangered. So would Miami, Florida and New York. A 1.5 meters rise in global sea level would cause a massive flooding of the globe. This immense rise in sea level is at our doorstep. It could be 1 meter, 1.5 meters, 5 meters, or maybe even 20 meters within the coming centuries. We are thus looking at a possible 'world catastrophe'.

Last week three of the world's leading ice core researchers met in Copenhagen to give a joint update of the state of the world's ice. They collectively expressed a growing concern for the future of our planet. The three glaciologists are currently involved with research regarding the speed and extent of the melting of the world's ice caps due to climate change. And it is precisely these studies that have set alarm bells ringing. We are moving towards a possibly devastating natural disaster with massive rises in sea level -- at an accelerating pace. And we encounter the problems unprepared, unless the world community very quickly decides to deal with what can be described as the world's most dangerous doubt: the immeasurable uncertainty about the forces that determine the fate of civilization.

"We do not know enough about the consequences and effects of climate change on the melting of the world's great ice caps. But I fear that we are rapidly approaching an unmanageable situation. It is a very dangerous uncertainty, we are dealing with -- because we do not know the scale of the disaster to come," says Dorthe Dahl Jensen, Professor in Ice and Climate at the Niels Bohr Institute.

This uncertainty is turning adaption into a 'lottery'. We simply do not know if we are to prepare for a small or a very large catastrophe. This makes the knowing what is needed, to ensure the right adaption, an almost intractable task. Throughout the globe, city planners, politicians, and companies face this dilemma. And it is making it difficult for them to initiate the necessary adaption strategies, policies and sea defense programs -- with a great danger of fatally misjudging how we are to protect ourselves. The problem is, in other words twofold. The risks posed by climate change are large, and so is our ignorance.

Worse and worse
The call out from the three glaciologists is not only about the accelerating melting of the world's ice, but also the fact that we know very little about the development and rate of the melting. They simply lack the necessary models to estimate and predict the future of the ice caps.

"We are making immense progress, just not fast enough. The uncertainty is still a vast problem. Uncertainty keeps us from seeing the full extent of the climate change and thus so provides those who want it, an apparently good reason to delay planning adaptation responses. Because how do you manage a risk, you don't know," says David G. Vaughan, Programme coordinator of Ice2Sea, British Antarctic Survey.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that every time science presents new data and new knowledge of the state of the world's ice, the predictions are adjusted to a more negative outlook. In just three years the glaciologists have tripled their estimates on how much the sea will rise globally within the next 100 years due to melting of the ice caps. In 2007, the forecast was 38 cm in this century. Today the three glaciologists agree that sea could rise more than 1 meter in this century. But they are still on shaky ground.

"Just over the last 10-15 years the melting rate of the ice caps has astonished the scientists. The first IPCC report did not factor the ice caps, because the melting rate was thought too slow, for it to become a decisive parameter in global sea level rise. The last IPCC report had to acknowledge that previous projections were incomplete and that the actual rise of sea level due to the melting of the ice caps was greater than expected. The next IPCC report will have projections that are much bigger than before, even though they are still connected to some doubt," says Roberts Bindschadler, Emeritus Scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Faster and faster
The last decades, the melting of the world's greatest ice caps has been accelerating due to abnormally high temperatures in the Polar Regions. In 2010, the Arctic and Greenland were 4-5 degrees warmer than usual. As a consequence the extent of the ice sheets in both areas is currently record low and their mass loss record high.

The massive melting is a relatively new phenomenon. New observations from NASA's satellite monitoring of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets show that their mass loss has increased substantially the past 15 years. 15 years ago, the Greenland ice sheet was in balance: the ice sheet received as much ice as it lost. After 1995, the picture changed. The annual mass loss increased by 200 gigatons in a decade. The increasing mass loss corresponds to a global sea rise of 0.5 millimeters a year.

"From 1993 to 2007 there has been a global sea rise of 3-4 mm per year. It is far more than the average for the 20th century, with the ice sheets' mass loss as the dominant cause. It may not sound like much, but the problem is that the melting is accelerating," says Dorthe Dahl-Jensen.

Based on current projections of temperature trends, she expects the melting of the ice caps to accelerate even more in years to come.

"We can't hope avoid a global temperature rise of 2 degrees or possibly even higher. This would make the Polar Regions 4-6 degrees warmer. It is difficult to foresee what this means. But it will speed up the melting process and thus can lead to much a more severe global sea level rise than previously anticipated".

Prehistoric warning
Looking back in history demonstrates that the consequences of a warmer earth can be severe. 127,000 years ago -- the last time the earth experienced a warming of the Polar Regions of 5 degrees over a longer period -- the seawater was 5-8 meters higher globally. This is a snapshot of what might happen if the expected 2 -- or maybe even 3-4 -- degrees become a reality.

A total meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet would mean a global sea level rise by up to 7.2 meters. The collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea level by 5-6 meters, while a complete meltdown of the entire Antarctic ice sheet would cause an increase in the global sea level of 61.1 meters.

Although the timeframe for this kind of sea level rise, in most reports, is very long, new studies suggest, that a tipping point, which can lead to great and irreversible rise in global sea level, may not be so far away. Today, the west Antarctic ice sheet stands firmly on the seabed. But if temperature rises, and parts of the ice sheet melt, there is a risk that the remaining ice cap becomes to light to stand firm. This will mean that water will flow under the ice cap and thus possibly tear it loose. If this happens, the West Antarctic ice sheet will be a huge iceberg flowing out to sea. It will cause a 5 meters increase in global sea level.

Today, no one can say with certainty whether and when these possible doomsday scenarios become reality -- according to the three glaciologists, that is what is so dangerous.

"The anticipated changes in the temperature will have almost incalculable impact on the global sea level. Some scenarios suggest a sea level rise of more than twenty meters, but we do not know any of this for sure -- that is what makes it so difficult to act upon", says Dorthe Dahl-Jensen.

A call for action
The uncertainty of the future sea level rise poses a great threat to the world community - this due to the fact that the limited scientific documentation and knowledge available hinders the world community to endorse the countermeasures needed for facing the future challenges. The 'not-knowing' prevent city planners, politicians and business from initiating the right adaption-strategies.

"Knowing what to do and how to fight climate change is 90 pct. of the problem. The melting of the ice caps is still a solvable task, but we need a more precise estimate in order for the world community to initiate the necessary adaption and sea defense programs," Robert Bindschadler emphasizes.

This is supported by Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, who advocates that a more ambitious investment in the research of the ice caps is key, if we are to prevent a possible future disaster.

"The current doubt connected to the icecaps prevents us from knowing what is necessary to do and acting on it. The glaciologists will be able to minimize the uncertainty greatly within a few decades, but we need a more ambitious investment in the research to do so".

According to the three glaciologists the amount of money needed to get an exact overview of the ice caps is imperceptible small. They agree that 4-5 mio. dollars a year -- equivalent to the cost of half an hour of the war in Afghanistan or the price of a fashionable apartment on Manhattan -- would be adequate to answer the questions of the future of the icecaps and to provide the necessary knowledge for the world community to be able to prepare for what to come.

Thus the politicians, organizations, or institutions that decide to give this money to ice cap research have the possibility of 'saving the planet from being flooded by water' and thus leaving a vast mark on the planet -- the possibility of becoming the hero of tomorrow.