UN: Global Warming Will Change the Lives of Millions

TROMSO, Norway, June 5, 2007 (ENS) - As the Earth warms, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will be affected by melting snow covers, ice and glaciers, according to a new United Nations report issued to mark World Environment Day, observed on June 5 each year.

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 group of about 70 world experts.

The report and another UNEP report on the negative impacts of the rising tide of tourists to newly fashionable polar destinations were launched in Tromso, Norway, where the main observances for this year’s World Environment Day will be held.

Hubbard Glacier calves into Alaska's Disenchantment Bay, 2006. The melt rate of glaciers into the Gulf of Alaska has nearly doubled since 1995. (Photo by Ned Rozell courtesy Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska-Fairbanks)
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.

The findings of the report on melting ice and snow, "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," said Steiner.

It is estimated that up to 1.5 billion people are dependent on water from rivers influenced by the melting of snow and ice. About 300 million of these people are expected to be critically dependent on snow and ice melting in periods with low precipitation. In Central Asia, Peru and Chile, large land areas are completely reliant on melting water from snow and glaciers.

Melting snow and glaciers on the mountains of Asia alone could affect about 40 percent of Earth’s population, the report warns.

"We have started an accelerating process, and we do not know its outcome," said the Norwegian Minister of the Environment Helen Bjornoy in Tromso today.

UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner and Norwegian Environment Minister Helen Bjornoy touch the ice outside the Arctic Cathedral in Tromso, Norway. June 3, 2007. (Photo by Ingun Maehlum courtesy Norwegian Environment Ministry)
Small Island Developing States and small coastal communities in the Arctic will be among the most vulnerable, and they are already experiencing the impacts of the changes, said Norwegian Minister of International Development Erik Solheim. "The culture and living conditions are threatened, and there is a great need to assist these countries and communities in adapting to the changes," he said today.

As ice and snow melt, avalanches and floods from the buildup of potentially unstable glacial lakes are possible. As ice thaws, there is the danger of higher levels of methane being released.

Methane, a gas which contributes to global warming, is one of the six greenhouse gases governed by the Kyoto Protocol. It is a product of human activities such as landfilling, but is also produced by natural processes.

The report explains that 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, a process that in turn will speed up global warming.

Polar Regions Melting in the Warm Embrace of Tourism

In a separate report released today in Tromso, UNEP said that polar tourism has become so fashionable over the past 10 years that Arctic and Antarctic regions once known only to local communities and scientists are in danger of being damaged.

Sustainable polar tourism policies and programs are urgently needed, says the report, produced jointly by UNEP and the International Ecotourism Society.

In the Arctic, tourist numbers have grown from about one million in the early 1990s to more tham 1.5 million today, according to the report, "Tourism in the Polar Regions - The Sustainability Challenge."

In Antarctica, the number of ship-borne tourists increased by 430 percent in last 14 years and the number of land-based tourists is up by 757 percent in last 10 years.

At the same time, appropriate management practices and infrastructure in the Arctic and Antarctica have not kept up with the rising number of visitors who put extra pressures on land, wildlife, water and other basic necessities.

From left: Norwegian International Development Minister Erik Solheim, UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner, HRH Crown Prince Haakon of Norway, and Norwegian Environment Minister Helen Bjornoy launch the UNEP report, "Sustainable Tourism in the Polar Regions." June 3, 2007. (Photo by Rune Stoltz Bertinussen courtesy Norwegian Environment Ministry)
Steiner said, "The fragility of some of these unique and biologically rich ecosystems may be impacted by the number of visitors and the activities undertaken. Yet, 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."

Stefanos Fotiou, the report's coordinator and head of the UNEP tourism unit, says visitors can also bring in conservation revenue. "There is a potential, like what happens in the Galapagos islands, to use tourism revenues for nature conservation projects in the Polar regions," he said.

The situations prevailing in the Arctic and Antarctica are different from one another, says Fotiou, and each has different management requirements.

"In the Antarctic, efforts should be continued to ensure that commercial activities will not impact on the successes of the Antarctic Treaty system, in particular in securing Antarctica as a natural reserve, 'devoted to peace and science,'" he said.

With visitors to the Arctic now greatly exceeding their host populations in many popular destinations, there are fears that unique cultural practices will be lost, and negative impacts on local peoples will grow.

In the Arctic, Fotiou says, "What is now needed to advance sustainable polar tourism policies and programs is to assemble existing information and create more practical tools, provide open access to that information, and implement pilot projects that will contribute to the mainstreaming of a more sustainable tourism."

On Friday, Bjornoy announced that ships using heavy fuel oils are now banned from visiting the protected areas on the east coast of the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Circle. Only ships using a very high quality of light fuel oil will now be allowed to sail inside the nature reserves of eastern Svalbard.

Unusual ice formations float along the shores of the Svalbard archipelago. (Photo courtesy Governor of Svalbard Ian Gjertz)
"Tourism has become a big industry. Tourism brings jobs and opportunities to people all over the world - including Norway, including the Polar regions," Bjornoy said. "But tourism - especially the large-scale global tourism - is also producing a growing pressures on resources, nature areas and ecosystems."

Bjornoy said Norway intends to nominate Svalbard for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

"For Norway, it is a declared goal to make Svalbard one of the best managed wilderness areas in the world," she said.

The waters surrounding Svalbard are inhabited by large populations of seabirds and marine mammals, and are vulnerable to oil spills.

On Svalbard is one of the last true wilderness areas, with an almost intact natural ecosystem and very limited impacts on the natural environment. Sixty-five percent of Svalbard's land areas and 84 percent of the territorial waters have been protected as nature reserves and national parks.

All the environmental regulations for Svalbard have been gathered into one Act. All new activities, will now be assessed on the basis of their overall pressure on the natural environment and cultural heritage, said Bjornoy.

Norwegian cruise ship sails near Svalbard. (Photo by Arne Nævra, Scanpix)
Most ships sailing to eastern Svalbard are either cruise ships or fishing vessels. The volume of cruise ship tourism has increased considerably during the last 15 years, and there is potential for further growth.

At the same time, navigation is particularly challenging in these waters due to drift-ice, low temperatures, shallow waters and lack of modern nautical maps.

In these remote areas it will also be almost impossible to have oil spill response equipment in place in time in the case of a major acute spill of heavy fuels, Bjornoy said. Spills of lighter fuel oils, such as diesel, typically have smaller and more transient effects on the environment.

The Norwegian government has also decided that ships sailing inside Svalbard's eastern nature reserves will not be allowed to carry more than 200 passengers.

"We have imposed this limit to prevent the large cruise ships which are today operating on Western Svalbard from starting to use also Svalbard's eastern waters," Bjornoy said. "This measure will limit the number of tourists going ashore on various sites, and ensure that disturbance of wildlife and other environmental impacts are kept at low levels."

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