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25 March 2004 Edition

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Rising tides threaten our very future

Our polluting is destroying our habitat

Our polluting is destroying our habitat

It is understandable that - for the average person - the whole ecological thing is a turn off. It seems the preserve of insane vegans living in tree houses opposing the council widening a death-trap road. The reason they give for their organic Alamo is the fact that two families of badgers will have to go hunting for a new sett when the diggers move in.

Most people would think that is a bit OTT. Subsequently, they don't give the eco-thing much thought.

This is a problem because environmental issues are far too important to be ignored by the vast majority of us who haven't been in a tree house since puberty.

In examining the scientific developments that we can expect over the next human lifetime (80 years if you're a Japanese female, 40 if you are a West African male) this article will look at the bow wave produced by the mindless burning of fossil fuels that is about to hit a shoreline near your children and theirs.

Melting ice caps and disappearing glaciers

In August 2000, a Russian-registered icebreaker was crunching its way towards the North Pole. When the vessel arrived, the passengers on board were surprised to find open water lapping at the ship's bows and seagulls wheeling overhead. "There was a sense of alarm," reported zoologist Dr James McCarthy, who was there. "Global warming was real, and we were seeing its effects for the first time that far north."

It seems that the melting is going on everywhere. Summer sea ice thickness across the Arctic has declined by 42% over the last four decades. The area of ice is also shrinking. Greenland, which is covered by an ice sheet several kilometres thick in places, is losing water through melting at a rate equivalent to the annual flow of the Nile River.

Anyone living in mountain regions will also have seen changes during the 20th century. When the Alpine railway station was built at Morteratsch in Switzerland at the end of the 1800s, passengers could stroll to the edge of the glacier without getting out of breath. Now the glacial tongue is nearly three kilometers away - and is still retreating fast.

In total, the Alps have lost over half their ice in the last century, and 100 glaciers have already disappeared completely. It's the same story in the Andes and the Himalayas, where the major rivers watering the Indian subcontinent all rise from the icy mountain peaks. And once the biggest glaciers have gone, there won't be enough water to keep the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers flowing all year round - leaving over a billion people in desperate need of fresh water.

What is less certain is whether Antarctica is also melting. The international scientific consensus is that no clear trend is visible since 1978, when satellite measurements began. But a more recent study has found that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is thinning, and has lost 31 cubic kilometres of ice since 1992. Since the ice sheet is actually grounded below sea level, there are fears that warmer ocean waters could penetrate underneath it - transforming the ice sheet into a gigantic melting iceberg and raising sea levels further.

Storm warnings

The cyclonic tidal wave that surged into the Indian state of Orissa on 29 October 1999 was up to six metres high. And when the wave washed through the small village of Jhatipari it carried half the population - including 78 children - with it.

A year earlier, Hurricane Mitch slammed into Central America. It killed 10,000 people and - according to the president of Honduras - wiping out five decades of development in two days of torrential rain.

Like the Orissa cyclone, Mitch became another disaster on an ever-growing list - which in 2000 included massive floods in Mozambique, India, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

According to the insurance giant Munich Re, in the 1960s there were 16 climate-related disasters, while in the 1990s there were 70. The costs of these disasters had doubled nearly every decade, rising from $50 billion in the 1960s to $400 billion in the 1990s.

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is an expert body set up by the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Environment programme. Its scientists agree that it is likely countries in the Northern Hemisphere are already experiencing heavier rainfall than before, but are uncertain about whether tropical storms are getting stronger.

Most storms have more immediately obvious causes than climate change - like the El Nino phenomenon, which triggers floods in western parts of South and North America and droughts in Africa and the western Pacific. But then El Nino itself seems to be getting stronger and more frequent - again, probably because of climate change. According to the IPCC's February 2001 summary report, El Nino events have been "more frequent, persistent and intense since the mid-1970s, compared with the previous 100 years".

It is probably no coincidence that the 1990s (the warmest decade on record) saw unprecedented hurricane activity, according to the US-based National Hurricane Centre. Between 1995 and 1998 there were 35 Atlantic hurricanes - an all-time record. On 25 September 1998, for the first time in a hundred years of observations, there were four Atlantic hurricanes in progress at the same time.

Rising sea levels

Trinidad and Tobago's government negotiator Kishan Kumarsingh has a joke he tells at climate change conferences - that in 100 years his country will no longer be represented at talks, because it will no longer exist. Like many other island nations, the threat of rising sea levels could consign Trinidad and Tobago to the history books.

In Kiribati, two small islets have already disappeared. Neither was inhabited, but many local people feel it's a taste of what the future holds in store. Across the tiny coral atoll, beaches are being eroded and ancestral graveyards are crumbling into the ocean. Building sea walls can only help temporarily - some people may have to move to higher ground even within the next decade.

According to the IPCC, sea levels rose by 10cm-20cm during the 20th Century, and are currently rising by about 2mm a year. The generally accepted prediction is that sea levels will rise during the 21st Century by between 10cm and 1 metre - with a 'best guess' of about 50cm.

According to figures published by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat, a one-metre rise in sea levels would inundate 6% of the Netherlands, 17.5% of Bangladesh, and about 80% of Atoll Majuro in the Marshall Islands. Flooding due to storm surges already affects some 46 million people a year, estimates the UNFCCC, and this figure could rise to 92 million with a 50cm sea-level rise, and to 118 million people for a 1-metre rise.

Sea level rise is caused by the oceans expanding as they warm, and by the melting of mountain glaciers and ice caps. But even if we stopped producing all greenhouse gases tomorrow, sea levels would keep rising for hundreds and even thousands of years because of the time lag it takes to cool such a massive volume of water.

Computer models cited by the IPCC show that a warming of more than 3 degrees celsius would eventually lead to the complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet - raising sea levels by 7 metres. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet will likely contribute 3 metres more as it melts over the next thousand years. Of course we'll all be dead by then - but our actions now are making the process irreversible.

Myth and fact

The origin myths of various human societies talk of the flood. Archeologists in the 1930s dug 12 feet down into the earth of Southern Iraq and found a huge band of silt. This was physical proof of the Great Flood. There was indeed a great flood that wiped out three cities in this fertile crescent.

That flood gave us the myths of Gilgamesh, which later became the fable of Noah. In that mythological time, ie time reported on before written records, there is the enduring myth of Atlantis. It is rooted in the human story that coastal settlements or riverside populations could be swept away in floods.

Recently, Indian archeologists have discovered a 'lost river' civilisation dating back to 7,500 BC off India's western coast. "The findings, buried 40 metres (yards) below the sea, reveal some sort of human civilisation, a courtyard, staircase, a bathroom or a temple or something," said Murli Manohar Joshi, Minister for Human Resources and also ocean development.

The earliest discovered human civilisations in the subcontinent are the sites of the Harrapan and Indus Valley communities, which date back to 2,500 BC. The most recent objects found include pieces of construction material, artifacts with rectangular holes, fused objects, pottery and beads. Carbon dating and other methods have dated these finds to around 7,500 BC. Acoustic imagery has also revealed a river stretch of nine kilometres (5.6 miles) along which all the objects have been found.

Clearly, what is under water now was once dry land. Such catastrophic events weaved their way into human myths like Atlantis.

Now we are ensuring that this will happen again on a catastrophic scale.

Life and death

Most species become extinct through the process of habitat removal. We have at this point in the human story opted for an economic system that seems oblivious to the fact that we are removing our own habitat.

For the mindless Celtic tiger cubs who drive their 4x4s from the mountainous terrain of Laois to the foothills of the M50, all of this might seem a bit academic and irrelevant. However, that gluttonous, unsustainable lifestyle is being paid for now in the third world, but ultimately our children's children will foot the bill.

If you are poor and live in the flood plains of the Ganges, then this is literally a matter of life and death.

The connection between global climate change and the burning of fossil fuels is now uncontestable. The oil companies have played a role analogous to the tobacco companies when it was first mooted that there was a casual relationship between smoking and lung caner.

What do tobacco companies have in common with the oil multinationals?

Nothing, except that they exist to maximise their profits, whatever the human or ecological cost.

When George W Bush visits this small, mainly flat island, we might want to remind him about Kyoto as well as Iraq.

The gas-guzzlers of the West, uncontrolled by the Texan in the White House, are presiding over global climate change.

We are all at risk from this.

Even those of you who decide to live up a tree.

The Sinn Féin candidate for the EU elections, Pearse Doherty, will deliver the annual Feargal O'Hanlon Memorial Lecture this Sunday. Volunteer Feargal O'Hanlon from Monaghan was murdered along side Seán Sabhat (South) of Limerick in the early hours of 1957 following a republican attack at Brookeborough Barracks.

Over recent years, in memory of the young Monaghan man, a tribute lecture has been held. The organisers are delighted that on this occasion Pearse Doherty will be the main speaker at an event that always attracts a large attendance.

The lecture will take place in the Hillgrove Hotel, Monaghan this Sunday, 28 March, at 3pm. Doherty, who at 26 is one of the youngest candidates seeking election to the European Parliament, will be speaking on the theme Youth, Politics — Our Future. All are welcome.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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