Tuesday, January 16, 2007

International Polar Year debate January 15

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I join in the thanks which have been expressed to the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, for his success in securing this timely debate and for his long involvement in polar issues. I hope that he will ensure that we do not have to wait another 13 years before we can debate the results of the IPY, and that he will get a positive answer from the Minister on the retention of HMS “Endurance”.

In December, an island off the coast of India that used to have 20,000 inhabitants vanished below the waves. It was the first of an increasing number of islands that will disappear as sea levels rise due to global warming—by as much as six metres before 2050 if we accept the figures given by Al Gore in his video, “An Inconvenient Truth”. Where I live, just the other side of Camberwell New Road, we should be just above the shoreline, but if there has been a miscalculation and it turns out that sea levels rise by eight instead of six metres, the end of my road will be submerged, together with much of Lambeth and Southwark. Your Lordships can see what will happen in their own areas if they look at the website wwwflood.firetree.net, a great piece of work by Alex Tingle.

Much of the scientific work of the International Polar Year will focus on climate change, of which the rise in sea levels is only one of the harmful effects. It is one that may become more accurately predictable through atmosphere-ocean general circulation models such as the one being developed by the UK’s Hadley Centre, and the Liverpool-based Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory’s IPY project to measure Arctic and Antarctic polar coastline sea levels as a contribution to the Global Sea Level Observing System. But we already know that the glaciers which drain the Greenland ice sheet are flowing twice as fast as they did two years ago, and if that sheet were to disappear altogether, sea levels would rise by 7.2 metres. I therefore welcome the noble Viscount’s proposal that the British Antarctic Survey’s remit should be extended to cover the North Pole as well as the South Pole. The connection between the two was underlined just the other day when it was discovered that the fragmentation of the Larsen B ice sheet was caused by a climatic event off the coast of Alaska. They are very closely connected. The British Antarctic Survey reckons that the west Antarctic ice sheet would not need to thin by very much for the ice to float, and therefore might become capable of rapid deglaciation. That is now a major research priority because if deglaciation were to begin, the present rate of sea level rise of 2 mm a year would accelerate and the total loss of this sheet would result in an average five-metre rise world wide.

There is UK participation in over 40 per cent of the 228 IPY approved projects, a remarkable testimony to the distinguished contribution being made today by many UK research institutions and universities in the field. The extent of international collaboration in these projects is in accordance with the concluding statement of the Antarctic Treaty meeting in Edinburgh, which said that members would champion,

“increasing international collaboration and co-ordination of scientific studies within Antarctica”.

But I wonder if the process has gone far enough. Some experts say that there are too many research stations in Antarctica doing work of low calibre, and your Lordships’ Science and Technology Select Committee thought that more could be done to ensure that bases communicated more effectively with each other on scientific matters. Some 27 different states have their own facilities—I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, has counted them, but he did refer to this as a matter of concern—and a number of new ones are being built as part of the IPY programme. The Belgians, for instance, whose scientists have been content to work in other nations’ bases for the past 40 years, are spending $8.2 million on a new base to accommodate 12 people for part of the year.

The Government say that they would be extremely supportive of an initiative to avoid duplication or to foster collaboration in science programmes, but they do not believe the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research should do the job. With nine EU states having their own national bases and a 10th coming on stream, is there perhaps an argument for a common European policy and a common European programme on polar research? Collectively we might be able to match the impressive facilities of the Americans with their new $153 million facility at the South Pole designed to accommodate 150 people and approaching completion during the IPY. It has a 10-metre sub-millimetre wavelength telescope to look at the cosmic microwave background now being installed, and a high-energy neutrino detector employing thousands of photo sensors spread out over a cubic kilometre below the base. If Europe got together, could we undertake projects of that size and complexity, and expand our use of satellite measurements which the BAS says are revolutionising the study of ice sheets? The BAS core budget is around £37 million, compared with a $346 million budget for equipment and logistics alone for fiscal year 2007. Can the noble Lord tell us what is the collective total spend on polar research by the European Union and how it compares with the United States?

I was disturbed to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, had to say about the long-term funding of research by the United Kingdom because I think noble Lords will agree that the UK gets excellent value for money from the BAS. Further, since the Stern review suggests that, with a business as usual scenario, climate change would mean an average 20 per cent reduction in standards of living across the world, the Government ought to be asking NERC whether its funding strategy places sufficient weight on the importance of polar science and the work of the BAS in particular. Perhaps we should propose that a hefty charge be made on tourists visiting Antarctica, not only to reduce the numbers which have caused concern because of their environmental effects, but also to help defray the increasing costs of international research projects.

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