ORONO, Maine — Dr. Paul Mayewski will be in Maine next week rather than Copenhagen for the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, but the director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine still had something to say about the status of global warming and a recent incident which some claim undermines the science behind the issue.
Mayewski was one of nine editors who compiled an international report, released Tuesday from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. The report warns that although conditions in the Antarctic are now relatively stable, things may change rapidly in the next 50 years.
The report estimates a sea level rise of up to 1.4 meters due to glacial melting, a much higher number than previously estimated. New estimates predict a warming of 3 degrees centigrade by 2100, but that number could climb if other things happen in the Antarctic.
Right now, Mayewski said, the Antarctic’s temperature is actually protected by the hole in the ozone layer. The hole, Mayewski said, has strengthened westerly winds, which in turn has kept warm air from reaching the Antarctic ice.
But Mayewski said the hole in the ozone layer is predicted to close by 2060, which means the westerlies will eventually weaken and usher in warm air over Antarctica. That could mean, he added, a dramatic and quick impact on sea levels. The Antarctic contains 90 percent of the planet’s ice, Mayewski said.
“While for the near future Antarctica is being protected and melting may be slightly reduced, it’s as if you’re trying to hold back a flood,” he said. “Once that flood breaks the barrier, the warm air comes in and instead of having a gradual warming of Antarctica we may very well have a very abrupt onset.”
Mayewski recently returned from meetings in southern Chile, from which the Magallanes Declaration called for action in Southern Hemisphere nations which will see the first impacts from a rising ocean level.
Industries such as agriculture, fisheries, forestry and tourism could all be affected, he said.
Mayewski said SCAR’s Antarctic report grew out of the findings of the Switzerland-based Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 2007 edition of which shared the Nobel Peace Prize that year.
Meanwhile, as the world of climate change research focuses on Copenhagen, Mayewski said last month’s controversy in England over suppressed climate change data was a “last-ditch attempt” at undermining the U.N. conference.
“Sadly it may probably have some effect,” he said.
Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, agreed Tuesday to step down pending an investigation into the controversy, which arose last month when some of his e-mails were among thousands leaked to the Internet.
Jones has been accused by skeptics of man-made climate change of manipulating data to support his research. In particular, many have pointed to a leaked e-mail in which Jones writes that he had used a “trick” to “hide the decline” in a chart detailing recent global temperatures. Jones has denied manipulating evidence and in-sisted his comment had been misunderstood, explaining that he’d used the word trick “as in a clever thing to do.”
The correspondence from Jones and others have been seized upon by those who are fighting efforts to impose caps on emissions of carbon dioxide as evidence of a scientific conspiracy.
Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and a vocal skeptic of global warming, called Tuesday for Senate hearings on the e-mails. In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who chairs the environment committee, Inhofe said the e-mails could have far-reaching policy implications for the United States. Both Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency are taking action to curb global warming based on a report that uses data produced by the Climate Research Unit.
A House committee held a hearing Wednesday on the status of climate science during which White House science adviser John Holdren and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration administrator Jane Lubchenco defended the validity of global warming research and said the e-mails did nothing to undermine scientific consensus on climate change. Some Republicans said they showed a “culture of corruption” among scientists.
Mayewski said he knows the researchers involved, and believes they would not intentionally manipulate data. He declined to comment on specifics of the e-mails.
“The people that are being attacked are really only one or two out of many scientists or many studies that came up with exactly the same results,” he said. “They’re good scientists. They’re not going to play with the data.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.