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Easter 2012 : The rising waters

We recently spent a week in Keswick at Words by the Water. There were several sessions there on the changing climate and, in particular, what is happening at the poles. They may seem far away, but it may not be long before South Pool feels the effect of what is happening at the South Pole.

The South Pole consists of Antarctica, a land mass the size of Europe covered in ice up to a thickness of 15,000 ft (4.5 km), but with an average of 7,000 ft (2 km). It is the driest place on Earth, so this ice sheet has grown bit by bit over many millennia. By contrast, the North Pole is predominantly frozen sea. Its major land mass is Greenland with an ice cap of around 7,000 ft thick: after Antarctica, this is the world’s second largest ice mass.

At the moment, the Arctic is warming quite quickly and each year more of the sea ice melts and less re-freezes in the winter. But, because this ice is already floating in the sea, this melting and freezing does not affect sea levels. The problems come when ice which is on land, either in Greenland or Antarctica, melts or slips into the sea.

Both these things are happening. The ice around Greenland is breaking off in quite large chunks and, in Antarctica, sheets of ice are separating from the land mass but, at least at the moment, most of this is sea ice although it leaves the land ice exposed as never before. It now seems likely that the Greenland ice cap will significantly reduce over the next 50 years or so. The timescale for Antarctica is rather longer, but it was once a tropical continent, with dinosaurs.

The effect on sea levels of this melting of land ice is dramatic. When the whole of Greenland melts, sea levels will rise by around 23ft (7 metres). If the whole of Antarctica then melts, sea levels will rise a further 230 ft (70 metres).

Obviously, in the next 10 or 20 years, we are looking at only a fraction of this; but ponder the effect of a tiny rise of just 10ft (3 m). The tides would close the road through South Pool every day, with the water frequently reaching the Millbrook. On most days the tide would cover Salcombe’s Fore Street, and flood the Quay car park in Kingsbridge. More widely, the sea would begin to reclaim East Anglia, source of much of our food. Keep an eye on the polar ice caps.

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