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Big thaw yields surprises

The worldwide thaw is accelerating. Thirty key international glaciers are melting about six times faster than in the 1980s. They are seen as the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Ed Struzik, this year's Atkinson Fellow, travelled the Arctic to explore how Canadians can adapt to and even exploit a precarious return to warmer times in the remote region.

Thirty key international glaciers are melting about six times faster than in the 1980s. Most of the world's glaciers are receding. Climate change is melting the European Alps, the snows of Kilimanjaro in Africa and the massive snouts of snow and ice between Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. Of the 850 glaciers on the eastern slopes of the Rockies that Canadian glaciologists have been monitoring, 325 have disappeared entirely since the early 1970s. But new data show the melting of glaciers worldwide is accelerating faster than anyone previously thought. According to the Swiss-based World Glacier Monitoring Service, 30 key international glaciers lost on average 66 centimetres of thickness in 2005. Those glaciers are melting about 1.6 times faster this decade than they were in the 1990s, and about six times faster than in the 1980s. In the last 27 years, they have, on average, thinned by a total of about 10.5 metres. The retreat of Arctic ice raises some troubling issues. When the Exxon Valdez ran into a reef in Prince William Sound 18 years ago, for example, it wasn't simply a case of pilot error. The oil tanker was on an altered course to avoid a dangerous mess of icebergs that had calved off the Columbia Glacier. It resulted in the worst man-made environmental disaster in North American history when nearly 2,000 kilometres of Alaskan shoreline was contaminated. The melting of glaciers also has huge implications for future hydro-electric generation in the north, for commercial navigation on the Mackenzie River, for rare life forms that rely on glaciers, for more southerly weather patterns and for low-lying coastal communities everywhere. Over in Greenland, the glaciers are also shrinking. Coastal glaciers there are melting into the Atlantic Ocean twice as fast as previously believed. But snow and ice have also been building up in the interior. This has led climate change skeptics to claim that the ice sheet is not thawing. Thanks to radio echo data and 10 years of radar information, scientists have recently confirmed that the Greenland Ice Sheet is, in fact, slimming dramatically.

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