Melting ice will affect hundreds of millions globally, new UN report says

4 June 2007

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be affected by melting snow covers, ice and glaciers, according to a new United Nations report released ahead of tomorrow’s celebrations for World Environment Day.

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be affected by melting snow covers, ice and glaciers, according to a new United Nations report released ahead of tomorrow’s celebrations for World Environment Day.

The availability of water supplies for both drinking and agriculture will also be impacted, while rising sea levels will affect low-lying coastal areas and islands, said the report, Global Outlook for Ice and Snow, compiled by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and a network of about 70 world experts, and launched today in Tromso, Norway.

The report “underlines that the fate of the world’s snowy and icy plates in a climatically challenged world should be cause for concern in every ministry, boardroom and living room across the world,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Indeed the findings are as relevant to people living in the tropics and temperate climes – and in cities from Berlin to Brasilia and Beijing to Boston – as they are for the people living in Arctic or in ice-capped mountain regions.”

Melting snow and glaciers on the mountains of Asia alone could affect approximately 40 per cent of the planet’s population, the report noted.

Additionally, as ice and snow melt, avalanches and floods from the build-up of potentially unstable glacial lakes are possible. As ice thaws, there is also the danger of higher levels of methane, a gas which contributes to global warming, being released.

Rising temperatures, coupled with the thawing of frozen land or “permafrost,” are leading to the creation of new and expansion of existing lakes in places such as Siberia which are releasing bubbles of methane, estimated to be 43,000 years old.

Meanwhile, less snow and sea ice means that more of the sun’s heat will be absorbed by land and polar oceans, which in turn will speed up global warming.

This year’s slogan for World Environment Day is “Melting Ice – a Hot Topic” in support of International Polar Year, which runs from 2007 to 2008.

In a separate report released today in Tromso, UNEP said that polar tourism has surged in the past decade, potentially promoting environmental degradation in the regions, especially in the Arctic.

In Antarctica, the number of tourists visiting by land has soared 757 per cent in the past decade and those arriving by sea by 430 per cent in the past 14 years. In the Arctic, the number of tourists has increased from one million in the early 1990s to 1.5 million today.

However, effective management practices and implementation of infrastructure have not matched the challenge posed by these rising numbers of tourists.

Produced in conjunction with the International Ecotourism Society, the report called for relevant sustainable tourism policies to be adopted urgently.

Polar regions, “once the preserve of local indigenous communities and scientists, are now very much on the fashionable tourist map and cruise line schedules,” Mr. Steiner said, adding that “tourism is an activity that if sustainably managed and with profits and revenues fairly shared can contribute to the conservation of the polar environment as well as the well-being and livelihoods of local communities in the Arctic,” he said.

Stefanos Fotiou, head of UNEP’s tourism unit and also coordinator of the report, called for more practical tools to be devised to help communities develop sustainable polar tourism policies and programmes.”

The main celebrations for this year’s Day will be held in Tromso, which hosts a centre for polar research. South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu will lead an ecumenical service in the Arctic Cathedral, and Crown Prince Haakon of Norway will present the winners of a UNEP’s children’s painting competition on the environment.

 

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