At the tipping point

At the Chilean research base on King George Island, scientists told me that the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet is at risk. Like Larsen, it is a continuous sheath of floating ice, comprising nearly one-fifth of the continent.

If it broke up, sea levels could rise by six meters. Think of the effect on the coastlines and cities: New York, Mumbai and Shanghai, not to mention small island nations. It may not happen for 100 years – or it could happen in 10. We simply do not know. But when it happens, it could occur quickly, almost overnight.

It sounds like the script of a disaster movie. But this is science, not science-fiction.

Dr. Gino Casassa, a leading Chilean glaciologist with the Chilean Center for Scientific Studies and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that recently shared a Nobel Prize, worries particularly about the Antarctic Peninsula – a finger of land on the northern coast that he designates as one of three global "hot spots," along with Central Asia and Greenland.

Temperatures there are rising 10 times faster than the global average, he has found. Glaciers are visibly retreating. Grasses are taking root in Antarctica’s barren soil, including one used on American golf courses. In the summer, it rains rather than snows increasingly often. A decade ago, Dr. Casassa was a skeptic on climate change. Today, he fears a calamity.

I am not scare-mongering. But I believe we are nearing a tipping point. These are signs. I saw them everywhere I visited.

In Chile, researchers told me that roughly half of the 120 glaciers they monitor are shrinking, at rates twice as fast as a decade or two ago. These include the glaciers in the mountains outside the capital, Santiago, that provide fresh water for six million residents. To the north, increasing drought threatens the country’s mining industry, a mainstay of the economy, as well as agriculture and hydroelectric power.

I spent a day in perhaps the world’s most magnificent national park, Torres del Paine. Like Antarctica, it was beautiful, pristine and majestic – and equally troubling. The snows of the Andes are also melting faster than we think. I flew over Grey glacier, a virtual ice sea framed by towering alpine peaks. In 1985, it retreated a full three kilometers in little more than two weeks. Yet another demonstration of the abrupt, unpredictable and potentially devastating Larsen effect.

I ended my travels under a great Samaumeira tree on the island of Combu, not far from Belem in the Amazon river delta. This was the heart of the fabled "lungs of the earth," the tropical rain forest prey to the de-forestation and land degradation that accounts for an estimated 21 percent of global carbon emissions.

Scientists say that climate change could turn the eastern Amazon into savannah within decades. My own itinerary had to be changed at the last moment because a tributary of the Amazon I planned to visit, near the port of Santarem, had run dry from drought.

All this might have been discouraging. Yet I left Brazil immensely heartened. Largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, Brazil has transformed itself into a quiet green giant – a leader in the fight against global warming. Over the past two years, it has cut deforestation in the Amazon by half. Vast tracts of jungle have been placed under federal protection.

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