Oceanographer Sees Real Effects of Climate Change

Robert Corell, chairman of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, talks to Steve Inskeep about the rapidly materializing effects of climate change. Corell says that within the next half century, rising sea levels will cause dramatic changes to the world we know.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Dr. ROBERT CORELL (Chairman, Arctic Climate Impact Assessment): Climate change is a real issue now. It's not an issue of the future.

INSKEEP: And that reality is nowhere more apparent than in the region studied by Robert Corell. In the coming months, we'll explore that region, the rapidly changing arctic.

In the spring and summer of recent years, the polar ice cap has receded more quickly and more dramatically. Some experts see it as a nightmare. Some businesses see it as an opportunity. However you see it, Robert Corell says the change has already begun. He's an oceanographer and chairman of a group called the Artic Climate Impact Assessment.

Dr. CORELL: Over this century, we're likely to see warming in parts of the Arctic that goes as much as 12 to 15 degrees warmer. I would say that by mid-century, something of the order of a 50 percent reduction of sea ice in the Central Arctic Basin is likely to be during the summertime.

INSKEEP: I understand you were just in the arctic talking to oil companies.

Dr. CORELL: Yes, we were in Svalbard, which is this island group that we used to call Spitzberg. And we were bringing together a number of people from the oil, gas, government, and it was very interesting. We were there in early March, and the harbor was ice-free, which is also very unusual for that region.

INSKEEP: What do the oil companies think is up there?

Dr. CORELL: There is no question there is a major gas finds. One, a gas field that has clearly been already identified is right on the border between Norway and Russia; reported to be the largest gas find reserve on the planet that we have yet discovered.

INSKEEP: Are there significant oil fields that also are becoming more accessible?

Dr. CORELL: Yes, there are. And a lot of those are actually still on land. But the accessibility to the shore means that equipment can be brought in that way and, of course, tankers can take the fuel out.

INSKEEP: Did any people at this conference, any oil people that you've spoken with, note the irony that the burning of hydrocarbons may be responsible to some degree for the melting of arctic ice, which is now making it possible to burn more hydrocarbons?

Dr. CORELL: Yeah, well, there are certainly--over cocktails--conversations of that like. But there are many ironies, you know. We all benefit from a very mature system of our society that uses fossil fuels for virtually everything we do. And so the transformation that's ahead of us will require that we rethink some of those energy policies.

INSKEEP: March, of course, is the beginning of spring. Is the ice-melt already beginning in March in the Arctic Circle?

Dr. CORELL: Yes, the ice is melting much earlier in the year than in the past, and it's freezing up much later in the year. If you go to Alaska, which is where I'm headed, we're seeing ice melting in the Bering Sea as much as a month earlier than had been the case for decades.

And in fact, I'm going to the little village of Shishmaref, which is in the Bering Sea. It's a village on one of the islands, and it is eroding away so rapidly that the entire village is now scheduled for moving inland and away from the coast, simply because the coast is eroding.

And people say, well, why is that? Well, I met with the weather service, and I said, give me a picture of the weather storms in the North Pacific, and when do they occur? Well it turns out they occur very strongly during this time when the ice used to be there but it is no longer present. So it's like the Corps of Engineers removed a coastal barrier that used to be made out of ice and the coast is no longer protected. Much of the town is already eroded away and has long been gone into the sea.

INSKEEP: You said that in recent years we've moved from looking at the possibility that the polar ice could recede to the likelihood that it's actually heading in that direction. What does that mean for sea levels around the world and for the climate in general?

Dr. CORELL: When the sea ice melts, it doesn't change the sea level. It's like when you put your summer drink together, as the ice melt doesn't change it because...

INSKEEP: Most of it's already in the water anyway.

Dr. CORELL: ...it's already take--it's already there. But what is important are the land-based locked up ices. And we know already that Greenland is melting quite rapidly, Antarctica, it's reported, is probably on the tipping point. Now on the scale of the next century, the projections are suggesting that, between the ice and thermal expansion of the ocean, that we're likely to see upwards of a meter of sea level rise.

INSKEEP: Well I'm just thinking, in the most basic terms, you're speaking to us from a home on the Eastern Shore of Maryland near the Chesapeake Bay. How is the landscape likely to be changed in your neighborhood?

Dr. CORELL: Well, if we get a meter of sea level rise, I'll step off my front step into water.

But I think it's going to be very important to the low-lying regions. A meter of sea level rise will basically inundate from Miami south in Florida. Sixty percent of Bangladesh disappears with one meter of sea level rise.

INSKEEP: Your view is that people have caused this, to some degree, through greenhouse gasses. Do you think that it is still within people's control to stop it or slow it down?

Dr. CORELL: I, I...it's not going to stop. You know, you're not going to cool the planet off. If we stop tomorrow, there's enough thermal energy in the system to warm the planet another degree Fahrenheit. So it's going to get warmer. And it's also going to be impossible to shift our energy policy rapidly, and that will be a big political and proper debate among nations and within nations as to how to respond to that.

INSKEEP: Well Dr. Robert Corell, of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, thanks, very much.

Dr. CORELL: Well, you're very kind. We appreciate your interest and wish you well. Thank you.

INSKEEP: And over this spring and summer, MORNING EDITION will be tracking the arctic news: the way the environment is changing, the way people's lives are changing; simply who comes and goes during the long days at the top of the world.

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