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Alarm bells ringing about Antarctic thaw

TROLL STATION, Antarctica (Reuters) - Alarm bells are ringing about risks of a quickening thaw of Antarctica that would drive up world sea levels, Norway's Prime Minister said on Sunday after a visit to the icy continent.

Scientists say there are hard-to-quantify chances that newly detected lakes under Antarctica's ice sheets might lubricate a slide towards the oceans, or that climate change could warm southern seas and melt floating sea ice holding back glaciers.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg seen at Belveder Palace in Warsaw in this June 29, 2007 file photo. Alarm bells are ringing about risks of a quickening thaw of Antarctica that would drive up world sea levels, Stoltenberg said on Sunday after a visit to the icy continent. (REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)

"It is alarming. Alarm bells are ringing. It is irresponsible for decision-makers to ignore these signals," Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told Reuters at the end of a two-day visit to Norway's Troll station in east Antarctica.

Norway set an ambitious goal last week of becoming "carbon neutral" by 2030 -- cutting its net emissions from burning fossil fuels to zero.

However, its plan includes a measure to include big forests that soak up greenhouse gases, although it is controversial because current U.N. rules do not allow states to count forests as part of carbon neutral plans.

"We need more exact knowledge. Scientists don't say that they know what is happening (in Antarctica) but they fear...that the ice on land can slip out into the sea and melt," Stoltenberg said in the station, about 250 km (155 miles) inland.

Stoltenberg visited glaciers, opened a satellite monitoring station and was told about climate change research around Troll, where the mountains are home to thousands of birds such as snow petrels. Temperatures were around -10 Celsius (14.00F).

Antarctica, about 1.5 times the size of the United States, contains enough ice to raise world sea levels by almost 60 metres if ever all melted. If Greenland melted seas would rise by about seven metres.

The U.N. Climate Panel, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, says that world sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59 cms (7 and 24 inches) this century because of human emissions of greenhouse gases.

Stoltenberg said risks were on the upside. Rising seas would threaten coastal cities, islands such as the Maldives and low-lying parts of Bangladesh or Florida.


Most of east Antarctica has been stable in a deep freeze with little sign of melt linked to global warming. Temperatures in west Antarctica, however, have been rising.

A Norwegian-U.S. expedition will next year examine whether vast lakes recently detected deep below the surface of the Antarctic ice could act as lubricants that accelerate a slide.

"There is preliminary data from the ice over these lakes...that shows that the ice speed is increasing," Jan-Gunnar Winther, head of the Norwegian Polar Institute, told Stoltenberg in a video link from the South Pole.

Ice above the lakes covered about eight percent of East Antarctica -- an area roughly the size of Greenland, he said.

Norway will also study whether signs of rising sea temperatures could eat away at the Fimbulisen ice that floats on the sea north of Troll and acts as a plug preventing part of the ice sheet from slipping into the sea.

Norwegian officials say that Norway will buy greenhouse gas emission quotas to offset Stoltenberg's flights. "There's a big difference between reading about climate change and being here," Stoltenberg said.

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