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Lea Lane Headshot

Melting Before My Eyes

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A recent article in the New York Times asserts that scientists are looking at the drastic decline of Arctic ice as the central clue to the extreme weather we've been having this winter throughout the world.

Most believe that the weather is a direct consequence of the human release of greenhouse gases, and that the warming Arctic is ground zero.

For years, more than a thousand researchers from sixty countries have reported on polar climate change both in the Arctic and Antarctic. Their reports told us more definitively about how much of the ice is melting, and the role of gases and emissions in the future. And the results were worse than expected.

In February, 2008. I cruised within a few degrees of 70 latitude south in Antarctica, and six weeks later I flew to northern Greenland at the same latitude north, 250 kilometers above the Arctic circle. (As my friends wryly note, I'm now bi-polar.)

Whatever the cause, I've seen the effects of global warming with my own eyes, and listened to Greenland fishermen who have no agenda except to make a living and feed their families.

Since I was there, glacial melt is increasing rapidly in the Arctic, and a huge chunk of Antarctica is right now floating towards Australia.

Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, has projected with scientific backing that if we emit only twice the amount of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases we do now, and if the temperature increases by only a couple of degrees, the almost three-kilometer thick Greenlandic inland ice will melt away. Global sea level will rise over twenty feet, causing world catastrophe.

The horizon for such a scenario is a few thousand -- or even a hundred years -- depending on which researcher you ask.

Why has Greenland become a major symbol for global warming? The Greenland ice cap, fourteen times the size of England, covers most of this largest island in the world, and contains ten percent of the world's total reserves of fresh water.

The ice is constantly changing and moving, and every year sheds thousands of icebergs into the sea from glaciers in the central and north-western regions. These bergs consist of heavily compacted snow that fell up to 15,000 years ago.

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Sermeq Kujalleq, the much-discussed collapsing glacier in Greenland, from my boat. This is one of the major ice fjords of the world, and has been shrinking rapidly. The ice around me seemed frighteningly softened, like ice cream.

(Photos taken by my Austrian travel companion, Katharina Seiser)

The ice fjord I visited near Ilulissat is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sermeq Kujalleq is the fastest moving glacier in the world, producing the most ice -- twenty million tons a day. But since 1840 it has shrunk 40 kilometers, and in the past few years alone, over fifteen kilometers -- the equivalent of about ten meters, or thirty feet a day.

In 2007, Arctic Ocean ice was half of what it was four years before, and warming has triggered icebergs to break free from the leading edge of glaciers ever more frequently, opening the way for the glaciers to race even faster to the sea.

Some climate researchers from the Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder Colorado now believe that these warming Arctic waters could be completely ice free in a few years. (Scientists previously estimated this wouldn't happen until 2040.)

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Looking out at mountains of shedding glacier

I passed within a few hundred feet of icebergs big as battleships, fortresses, cathedrals and islands, and thousands of smaller chunks gently drifted past in the Arctic currents. Some of this ice will float more than 2,500 miles south before melting at latitudes of around 40 degrees, the latitude of New York.

The ice took all shapes, and openings in some icebergs were large enough to tempt our little red fishing boat to sail through (we didn't). We crunched over ice the size of cars.

Aqua water outlined the seven-eighths of ice below the surface, and small, clear bits -- frozen rain trapped maybe thousands of years ago and now freed -- float pure and sweet around us, like crystals in the sun.

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A partly unfrozen bay in Greenland. In the past it was completely frozen.

Despite the warming trend, ice and snow surrounded me in Greenland. I gingerly walked on it, and dog-sledded for hours along steep, white, glistening fields behind a fan of fifteen Greenlandic dogs and an Inuit driver sharing my sledge. And from the little red Dash-7 Air Greenland plane I gazed down on thousands of bergs in the sea, white polka dots on blue velvet.

Looking inland, the vast icecap stretched as far as I could see. Near Kangerlussuaq, the air hub where we made connections, I stepped onto this huge remnant from the last ice age.

I'm no expert on climate change, but I did talk to dozens of locals, mainly fishermen, who make their living at the Royal Greenland fisheries from these waters. Some of what they said:

-- The water temperature is two or three degrees warmer than in the recent past.

-- Cod have moved to the area, and shrimp have moved further north. Fishermen have not been able to ice fish recently, and they can now sail into previously icebound fjords year round.

-- Sealers and whalers in Qaanaaq in north Greenland, say that the sea ice is three feet thinner today than earlier.

-- For the past dozen years or so the Ilulissat harbor has not frozen, and it always did before.

People are reacting to this and Greenland is becoming a world center of climate research. Three Ilulissat warehouses are now Kangia Ice Fjord station, where scientists and researchers study climate change on a regular basis.

And it's getting worse. Besides these iceberg-clogged Arctic waters, a couple of weeks after I returned from Antarctica, the Wilkins ice shelf, 160 square miles wide, broke off near the western peninsula, near waters where I had been cruising.

Questions may still exist as to the speed of declining ice, but facts now show it is declining faster than ever recorded. And this year's extreme weather has only underlined the obvious.

What can we do? And can we get our act together and take a world view before we destroy the planet and ourselves?

Witnessing the silent white/blue coldness of ice shelves, ice caps, glaciers and icebergs in our polar regions is life-altering. How can all countries not be moved to go green in every way possible, when the white of the world seems to be melting before our eyes?

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Walking -- in six layers and many pounds of sealskin -- on a still-frozen Arctic bay in April, 2008. Much of this bay has stopped freezing in the past dozen years.

John McCain, Nancy Pelosi and other pols have already made the pilgrimage to Greenland's melting icecap. They, like me, were probably shocked by the sea of floating ice, beautiful yet bittersweet. And despite this, politicians remain dismaying and intransigent.

When can we come together to act responsibly as citizens of this precious earth?

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