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EXPLORERS IN ANTARCTICA
FIND EVIDENCE OF GLOBAL WARMING

The important links between science, public awareness and political action were made clear today as government ministers at the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, spokewith yachtsman and adventurer Sir Peter Blake in Antarctica.

At anchor among icebergs and sheltering from gale-force katabatic winds, SirPeter reported anecdotal evidence of much reduced sea ice cover in the Antarctic Peninsula at latitude 69 degrees 15 mins South.

"We are in an area that normally is solid ice at this time of year. Now it hasmany bergs in it, but is essentially a free waterway, an almost unheard of occurrence," Sir Peter said by satellite phone.

"The captain of a cruise ship that has been coming to the Antarctic Peninsula every year since the mid-1970s told us he has never seen the area so free ofice, and that the average temperature in that time has increased by about 1.4degrees Celsius."

UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer told the adventurer that the most recentassessment of the Inter governmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) showed that global warming over the next century is likely to be between 1.4 to 5.8 degrees Celsius.

He said that recent IPCC reports had confirmed a spectacular retreat and collapse of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula, which is related to migration of the January zero degrees Celsius isotherm.

Projected warming is likely to break up ice shelves further south on theAntarctic Peninsula, exposing more bare ground and triggering biological changesin the terrestrial and marine environments.

Mr Toepfer also told Sir Peter and the crew of his expedition yacht Seamaster that analysis of whaling records and modeling studies indicate that Antarctic sea ice retreated south by 2.8 degrees of latitude between the mid 1950s and early 1970s, as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from industrial emissionsrose.

"Climate change in polar regions is expected to be among the greatest of any region on the Earth and will cause major physical, ecological, sociological and economic impacts," Mr Toepfer said.

David Anderson, President of the 21st session of UNEP's Governing Council takingplace in Nairobi, Kenya, and Canada's environment Minister, echoed Mr Toepfer'sremarks. "As a circumpolar country, we in Canada are acutely aware of the impact of climate change. In Canada's north, we are seeing dramatic changes that effect permafrost and sea ice, the latter of which has major implications for species on which the traditional Inuit life depends, such as polar bears and seals. This, in turn, has an impact on the traditional lifestyles of our Northern peoples. For Canada, this underscores the urgent need to take actionon climate change. We are taking action domestically, but we need awareness and movement on the international front as well."

Sir Peter said they had sailed through areas that would not have been navigable in the era of early explorers like Sir Ernest Shackleton, whose leadership of difficult geographical and scientific expeditions provides SirPeter with inspiration.

"Today we went to see what has happened to the King George VI ice shelf thatnormally fills the channel between Alexander Island and the mainland at the baseof the Antarctic Peninsula. Indications are that it has receded dramatically,especially over the past 8 to 10 years. We weren't able to make it to the face of the ice shelf, because it is dropping so much old ice into the sea as itrecedes. The channel is full of it," Sir Peter said.

Sir Peter has won the Whitbread Round the World yacht race, held the record time for circumnavigating the world non-stop under sail (in the 1994 Trophee Jules Verne race), and headed the Team New Zealand syndicate, which won - then successfully defended - the Americas Cup, the premier trophy in world yachting.

He now heads "blakexpeditions" and, in the 36-metre polar sea exploration yacht Seamaster, is embarked on a five-year schedule of expeditions to areas of the world that are key to the Earth's ecosystem. His aim is to build public awareness of the threats facing the environment, particularly water, because ofhuman activity.

"Earth is a water planet on which the quality of water defines quality of life,"Sir Peter explains. "Good water, good life. Poor water, poor life. No water, nolife."

"Our objective is to help protect the waters of the world and, so, life in, onand around those waters."

UNEP partnered with "blakexpeditions" before the Seamaster set sail from New Zealand last November, providing advice and its authoritative Global Environment Outlook reports as a basis for expedition planning and educational activity.vMr Toepfer said: "I am delighted that we have been able to play a role in suchan innovative public awareness initiative. UNEP has many responsibilities but providing thorough scientific assessments, and transferring this knowledge the public and to the policy makers is one of its most important. "

Joining Mr Toepfer in the conference call, held during the 21st session ofUNEP's Governing Council, were the New Zealand environment minister MarianHobbs, and Dutch Environment Minster Jan Pronk, who chaired the last climate change convention meeting - COP-6 - in November in The Hague. The Conference of Parties is due to resume later this year, having failed to reach agreement atThe Hague on how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

On the agenda during UNEP's 21st governing council meeting are a range ofpressing issues ranging from how to protect vulnerable populations against theimpact of climate related natural disasters, the need to strengthen environmental laws in emerging economies, to the impact of globalisation onnative, indigenous, cultures.

UNEP's work programme and its need for better financing to help it meet theenvironmental challenges of the new millennium are also taking centre stage.

From her current location Seamaster will spend further time exploring beforeheading back to South America in April to prepare for an expedition tracing the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean to its source in the Andes Mountains.

The IPCC is due to finalise the second volume of it Third Assessment Report,detailing the impacts of climate change on the regions of the world, at ameeting in Geneva from February 13-19. The "Climate Change 2001: Impacts,Adaptation and Vulnerability" report's Summary for Policy Makers will be postedon the internet at www.ipcc.ch at 10am GMT on February 19.

UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation established the IPCC in 1988. Its role is to provide objective scientific and technical assessments that can helppolicy makers and political leaders take informed decisions about climatechange.


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