More on Santa's Whirlpool

Tom Wheeler twbounds at
Wed Aug 23 09:11:40 PDT 2000

GUARDIAN (London) Wednesday August 23, 2000 by James Meek, science correspondent

Polar data left unused

Data from top secret navy submarine missions under the North Pole holding vital clues to the nature and speed of global warming could end up lying unused because scientists have not been given the money to finish analysing it.

In an unprecedented act of openness about one of its murkiest areas of operations, the (brit) Ministry of Defence has released sonar measurements of Arctic ice thickness taken by nuclear submarine crews during eight previously unreported polar voyages. The data was given this year to Peter Wadhams, of the Scott Polar Research Institute, in Cambridge, who has accompanied nuclear sub crews on other journeys below the Arctic ice.

Together with data already analysed from US navy subs, the new figures would give climate experts a powerful tool to quantify the impact of man-made warming on the global environment. They expect to be able to confirm scientists' fears that, largely due to global warming, the ice pack is vanishing, and the Arctic basin could be completely ice-free in summer by 2050.

But the government has given Dr Wadhams only half the money that he needs to turn the raw data into usable information.

"Up till now, instead of having data for every year, we've had gaps," Dr Wadhams said. "So when we see a thinning of the ice it's possible for people to say that, in the missing years, it got thicker again.

"The results would be incredibly rewarding. We think they would confirm a steady downward trend in the thickness of the ice, rather than a cycle of thinning and thickening."

When Dr Wadhams applied to the government body that gives out grants to scientists for climate work, the Natural Environment Research Council, he was told he could only have funding for 18 months of work - 102,000 pounds- instead of the three years he asked for.

"The navy has been very helpful towards science," he said. "There's been a wonder ful collaboration with them, and now it's extra wonderful because they have released data from previously classified voyages. The only problem is that we need funds to work the data up."

Computer models of climate change forecast global warming happening faster in the Arctic than elsewhere in the world, making it a crucial laboratory. There are fears that, in a century's time, the Arctic melt will deflect the Gulf Stream short of the British Isles, making the UK significantly colder than it is now.

"It's vitally important, because the Arctic is showing us climate change at an accelerated rate, and it will have a marked impact on our own climate. NERC ought to view this as high priority, but it's very difficult for them to change their way of thinking," Dr Wadhams said.

A spokeswoman for NERC said there was a lot of competition for grants, particularly in the field of climate change, and Dr Wadhams had also received a grant of 311,000 pounds for another Arctic ice study.

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