Polar ice, climate change, and Filipinos

Melting ice in polar regions can cause adverse effects on non-polar areas, including the Philippines, says climate expert

KD Suarez

Published: 10:10 AM May 9, 2012

Updated: 10:12 AM May 9, 2012

MANILA, Philippines - If the Arctic and Antarctic regions seem too far for Filipinos to care, think again.

Dr Josefino Comiso, senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Center, said climate change links the tropics to the polar regions in numerous ways because of its global nature.

"Climate change is global. It's not just confined to one area," he told Rappler during the 1st National Symposium and Workshop on Environmental Science (NSWES) on Monday, May 7.

In a talk he delivered during the symposium, the physicist, one of the world's leading experts on polar processes and climate change, explained how a fast-warming planet is changing the polar and other ice-covered regions, and in turn affecting the global environment.

Numerous studies in the past decades have been pointing to a correlation between increase human-generated greenhouse gases and rising global temperatures. In turn, the Earth's complex, global systems are affecting all aspects of the planet, he explained.

Shrinking ice

One prominent effect of rising temperatures is the shrinking polar ice caps.

The polar regions are a good reflector of solar energy, helping keep the Earth cool. Comiso said that if polar ice starts to melt and decrease in area, the regions not covered by the white, reflective ice, in turn, will naturally start to absorb more energy, making temperatures slowly shoot up.

In turn, this creates a warmer region, causing more ice to melt. The cycle goes on, and this causes a feedback mechanism that multiplies the effect.

This, Comiso said, is most evident in the Arctic, where scientists have observed a "big change" in the ice cover, especially during the summer months.

"If you continue the process, sooner or later the ice cap in the Arctic will disappear," he said, noting that you have to go back at least a million years into the Earth's history to see a similar period where there is no ice there.

Melting sea ice, in turn, poses numerous risks to people who don't live near the poles.

Rising sea levels would put millions of people living in low-elevation coastal zones (LECZs) around the world at risk, including at least 15 million Filipinos. Sea level rise would also increase saltwater intrusion in the freshwater table according to studies, Comiso said.

Response to ozone hole problem a model

Aside from these, there are the known possible effects of a warmer climate: adverse effects on coral reefs and marine biodiversity, in particular in megadiverse countries such as the Philippines; more extreme weather events, including more tropical cyclones; and impacts on animal and plant life on land.

Comiso said that although more research is needed regarding the different effects of climate change, current studies are already showing the adverse effects of greenhouse gas warming.

There is a need to have an immediate response to climate change and its effects, and Comiso said, and it could be done in a global scale.

He cited the Ozone hole "success story" as a good model to face a global problem such as climate change, where science, governments, the private sector, and the public all worked together to find solutions to the problem.

The NSWES was held on May 7 and 8, at the National Institute of Physics (NIP) at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, gathering the Philippines' top experts on environmental science for the first time. - Rappler.com