Fears of the impact of global warming melting polar ice have intensified with news that for the first time the North Pole stands at the centre of a mile-wide (nearly two-kilometre wide) expanse of ocean.
International conservationists in Britain and elsewhere have expressed alarm at this discovery by the ice-breaker ship, Yamal, taking wealthy tourists to the North Pole. One British newspaper, with the headline, "The ship that Sailed over the North Pole", exclaimed:" This stretch of open water, instead of ice, at the Pole is one of the most dramatic manifestations yet witnessed of the rapid melting of the world's ice, itself one of the clearest signs that global warming threatens the very future of the planet".
The Harvard University scientist who led the expedition, Dr James McCarthy, said:" This was totally unexpected. Six years ago , the ice at the pole was six to nine feet (about two metres) thick". It is little more than half what it was 25 years ago. The ship's captain, who has made the voyage ten times, said he had never encountered open water there previously. The ice caps are estimated to be shrinking at the rate of six per cent a year, but there is still controversy whether this results from natural causes or from man-made greenhouse gases.
Some scientists say there is mounting evidence that climate change is happening more quickly than previously thought, threatening catastrophic consequences for the planet, with dramatic climate change and flooding of low-lying land. Washington's Worldwatch Institute says: "Earth's ice cover is melting at an astonishing rate". It is predicted that within a few decades the Arctic will be largely free of ice, opening up new routes for shipping.
In the South, the effect is equally ominous. Antarctica's shape is changing as three huge ice areas, the Wordie, the Larsen and the Prince Gustav shelves, have disappeared in the past few years, and two others, the Larsen B and Wilkins shelves, have severely shrunk. Ice on land and glaciers is also melting, causing the oceans to swell.
There is criticism that international negotiations by the world's leaders are having little effect on curbing pollution that causes global warming. Britain has taken a lead in campaigning for more effective action, persuading the international conference in Kyoto, Japan, three years ago to cut emissions of carbon dioxide by between six and eight per cent by 2012. But this is regarded by m