Reading the Poles: Earth's Ice in Jeopardy Ted Scambos has been keeping an anxious eye on Antarctica's massive ice sheets, watching for signs that they could be melting. His colleague Mark Serreze is watching ice at the other pole. They've come up with the same finding: The planet's ice is in jeopardy.
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Reading the Poles: Earth's Ice in Jeopardy

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Reading the Poles: Earth's Ice in Jeopardy

Reading the Poles: Earth's Ice in Jeopardy

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I'm Robert Siegel with a story about two scientists who are watching the earth melt. One is fixated on Antarctica, the other on the Arctic. And though their temperaments are different, these two men share a common worry, that the planet's ice is in jeopardy.

NPR's Richard Harris visited them in Boulder, Colorado.


Boulder is best known as a Mecca for outdoor fun, whether it's skiing, hiking or even skateboarding, like in this specially built park east of downtown. Shorts and T-shirts attest to the comfortable climate here, but across the street from the skateboard park is a low-slung brick building where the intellectual climate, if you pardon the expression, is frosty.

This is the home of the National Snow and Ice Data Center, part of the University of Colorado. It's a repository of up-to-the-minute information about the state of ice all around the world. It's a collection of whirring computers, but more importantly, of people whose mental thermometers are set below 32 degrees.

Dr. TED SCAMBOS (National Snow and Ice Data Center): We're getting packed up and ready to leave on this ice trek trip. The idea of the trip is that we would visit a couple of icebergs.

HARRIS: Ted Scambos is one of the scientists at the center. He has recently returned from one of his many trips to Antarctica. On this spring day, he's telling a crowd of his colleagues about the adventures he had installing a video camera on an iceberg.

When we meet in his tidy office, Scambos says he started out being interested in the technology of remote sensing, using satellites to study planets. But gradually, he discovered that he had a passion for ice.

Dr. SCAMBOS: It was fantastic to be able to fly over the area that I'd been looking at in satellite pictures and see it really evolving and happening right before my eyes.

HARRIS: Scambos could actually see signs of global warming. The most dramatic event, back in the year 2002, vaulted him into the center of a major public event. For a couple of years, the enormous Larsen B ice shelf along the Antarctic peninsula was showing signs of instability. Then, all of a sudden, it vanished into the sea.

Dr. SCAMBOS: It just literally crumbled into pieces that made this sort of blue mush across the ocean for thousands of square kilometers. It was a huge area that broke up.

HARRIS: At the time, he wondered whether anybody would care. But once the announcement went out, Scambos was inundated with press inquiries for weeks.

Dr. SCAMBOS: Some of the pictures that came out from the NASA satellites of the Larsen B breaking up are icons, one of a few icons that really tell people, this is what you can expect from global warming. That you're going to see events that we couldn't have predicted, larger scale than we really imagined beforehand. That things are happening.

HARRIS: It was a turning point for the public and scientists alike.

Dr. SCAMBOS: Geologists are used to thinking in terms of millions of years, but glaciologists get to think in terms of hundreds to thousands of years and see things evolving much more rapidly.

HARRIS: And yet, here was something that happened, really, over the course of a couple of years. How did that change your thinking and your sense of urgency?

Dr. SCAMBOS: After the Larsen B breakup, that's when I started saying sentences like we're in for a wild ride in the next 20 or 30 years. That we're going to be surprised again and again.

HARRIS: If the earth loses a lot of its ice cover over the next few centuries, that would be incredibly short on a geological time scale. But Scambos says that's seemingly forever in human terms.

Dr. SCAMBOS: The time scale is so much longer than what we're used to planning for, thinking about, we really don't have good societal and political tools for dealing with it.

HARRIS: And some profound changes could be evident in just a few decades.

Dr. MARK SERREZE (National Snow and Ice Data Center): My colleague Ted, of course, he's had this great interests in the Antarctic. Well, I have always had interest in the Artic, on the other side of the earth.

HARRIS: Mark Serreze sports a long ponytail, blue jeans, and the demeanor of an aging hippie. It's a sharp contrast with Scambos's button-down style. And while Ted Scambos started his career poring over data down-linked from satellites, Mark Serreze found himself as a young graduate student crunching through Artic ice to take field measurements. But Scambos and Serreze share a common perspective about what's happening to the earth.

Dr. SERREZE: Of course, we'd both been noticing, working together, these big changes that have been occurring.

HARRIS: Serreze says the Larsen B breakup was the world's wakeup call about melting ice. But trends in ice cover over the Artic Ocean have been the big news ever since.

Dr. SERREZE: The changes we've seen in the past five years have got us a little bit worried. We had this record minimum in sea ice in 2002, the least we'd ever seen. And we figured, oh, it's got to recover because it usually does. I mean, it's not going to be that low the next year. Well, then it was, 2003 also very little sea ice. 2004, also very little sea ice. 2005 sets a new record minimum in the amount of sea ice we've got.

HARRIS: Normally, a lot of ice builds up again during the winter, but Serreze says not so in recent years, including this year. It's too early to declare that the summer of 2006 will set another record for low ice.

Dr. SERREZE: But it is not looking good at this moment.

HARRIS: And some forecasts project that the Artic Ocean could be entirely free of ice during the summertime sometime in the next 20 to 50 years. That's because ice serves as a heat reflector. So, as ice disappears, more and more heat goes into the ocean and that, in turn, melts more ice. Scientists attribute at least part of this phenomenon to global warming caused by human activities.

Dr. SERREZE: Climate change in the Artic is not something that's going to happen in 50 to 100 years. It's here. It's happening now and we're just watching it unfold.

HARRIS: When you started thinking about ice, lo these many years ago, did you realize that your career was going to be so heavily shaped by global warming?

Dr. SERREZE: Oh no, I didn't have a clue, didn't have a clue. But in doing Artic research, I had put myself in a position of being able to see these changes emerge first, because this is where we see them, most strongly in the Artic. The funny thing is that for so many years, us climate people, we were these nerds, you know, these geeky science nerds. And all of a sudden, we're hip now.

HARRIS: They're also in demand. Mark Serreze and Ted Scambos spend a fair amount of time fielding questions from reporters and giving public presentations about climate change. They have become the human face of a melting earth. They don't seem entirely at ease in the role, but Scambos has no doubt about its importance.

Dr. SCAMBOS: Scientists are trying hard to avoid a situation where we have to have a catastrophe in global warming before people will take action. We're trying to say we know this is coming down the road. When you see Artic sea ice shrink to a new level that we haven't seen in 30 years, pay attention.

HARRIS: And now, it seems, people are hearing that message.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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