Kerry's Arctic climate change adventure hits Greenland

2016-06-18 08:14
US Secretary of State John Kerry during a tour the Jakobshavn Glacier and the Ilulissat Icefjord, located near the Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, Greenland. (Evan Vucci, AP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry during a tour the Jakobshavn Glacier and the Ilulissat Icefjord, located near the Arctic Circle in Ilulissat, Greenland. (Evan Vucci, AP)

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Aboard the HDMS Thetis - Sailing through fields of large icebergs aboard a Danish naval vessel, US Secretary of State John Kerry brought his tour of the Arctic to Greenland on Friday, visiting the Northern Hemisphere's largest glacier to bring attention to the dangers of climate change.

Hazarding a brief June snow and hail flurry in Disko Bay off Greenland's third largest city of Ilulissat, population 4 500, about 350km north of the Arctic Circle, Kerry was meeting with scientists researching the dramatic erosion of the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier that is contributing to global sea rise. The icecap has receded 20km since 2001, with a large increase since 2002.

A number of factors, including increasing air temperatures, the rise of black carbon emissions that discolour the ice and make it absorb more heat, and the introduction of warm sub-surface water from the Gulf Stream which erodes the ice sheet from below, have all contributed to the retreat of the glacier, which is the most active outside Antarctica in terms of iceberg production.

"There is profound change throughout the Arctic region," said Kerry, clad in a green thermal parka and aviator sunglasses as Her Danish Majesty's Ship Thetis cruised around the bay. "There are combined forces having this impact, but we also know that human beings, by the choices we are making to provide our power, our energy, are having a profound negative impact. There is a gigantic transformation taking place."

The study of the Sermeq Kujalleq Glacier is considered critical to understanding the effects of climate change and notably as a laboratory for ice loss in the Antarctic, which is far less accessible but has the potential to be 100 times greater than in the Arctic, according to David Holland, an American scientist from New York University, who briefed Kerry and Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen.

"Things are changing and we are perhaps the last generation than can do something about it," said Jensen, whose country handles Greenland's defence and foreign affairs under a home-rule agreement.

Holland from NYU and Soren Rysgaard of Greenland's Institute of Natural Resources estimated that the glacier could retreat by about 100km over the next 100 years it continues at its current rate. That would result in a significant rise in the sea levels, but would be modest compared to the impact of similar ice loss in the Antarctic, Holland said.

The United States currently is the chair of the Arctic Council  - the bloc of eight countries that administer territory at the Earth's northernmost latitudes - and as America's top diplomat, Kerry has made the health of oceans and combating climate change a priority. He will host an international conference on oceans in September, the third such event he has organised.

On Thursday, Kerry was in Norway's extreme north, visiting a polar research station in Ny-Alesund, the world's northernmost civilian settlement and viewing the Blomstrand Glacier, which has also receded significantly in the past 25 years to 30 years, with summer temperatures now 8° and 11° higher than they were.

Kerry was a champion of the landmark global climate change accord reached in Paris last year that seeks to limit the Earth's rise in temperature to 2°C,  but he has consistently warned that more must be done, particularly in terms of reducing fossil fuel use and moving to clean renewable energy sources.

The Paris accord "is not even enough", Kerry said. "There is no mistaking that we are contributing to climate change, we human beings."

Read more on:    john kerry  |  denmark  |  us  |  cop21  |  climate change

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