As Arctic Warms, Scientists Rethink Culprits ; Some Say Efforts to Stem Global Warming Should Focus First on Gases Other Than Carbon Dioxide

By Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2000 | Go to article overview

As Arctic Warms, Scientists Rethink Culprits ; Some Say Efforts to Stem Global Warming Should Focus First on Gases Other Than Carbon Dioxide


Peter N. Spotts, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In its effort to curb global warming, a three-year-old international pact aimed at cutting carbon-dioxide emissions may be focusing on the wrong chemical villain - at least in the short term.

As the 1997 Kyoto accords bog down - primarily over disagreements within industrialized countries over how to dramatically reduce carbon-dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2012 - new research indicates that the world can make just as much progress by limiting other greenhouse gases, such as methane, ozone, and chlorofluorocarbons.

Findings by James Hanson, a NASA scientist whose Jeremiah-like warnings about global warming helped lay the foundation for the Kyoto Protocols, and several colleagues show that controlling these other gases first may be a more effective - and in the short run, more painless - approach to slowing climate change.

Though less abundant than CO2, these other gases have combined to warm the atmosphere just as much as all the carbon-dioxide human activities of the past 150 years, the scientists say. Their conclusion: Activities that produced these other heat-trapping gases have been "the primary drive for climate change in the past century."

The study, published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, comes as the United States and 100 Kyoto signatories prepare for meetings over the next few months to iron out unresolved issues in the pact. One sticking point centers on achieving the goals without sending industrial nations - the world's major C02 producers - into an economic tailspin.

The study also coincides with growing evidence that Earth's climate is indeed changing in ways scientists have predicted - particularly in the Arctic, which is thought to be a bellwether region.

*This month, a team of researchers from four US universities published a survey of polar environmental studies conducted during the past 30 years. Among its findings: Evidence suggests that temperatures in the Arctic are at their warmest in 400 years.

*Last week, passengers on a Russian icebreaker reported finding a mile-wide stretch of open water - in place of the ice cap - at the North Pole.

In and of itself, that is no surprise, although it dramatizes the global-warming phenomenon. "In an ice pack, there will always be some open water" this time of year - even at the North Pole, says Donald Perovich, who studies the links between polar ice and climate at the US Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H.

*The polar ice cap has lost 40 percent of its volume in the decades since 1958, according to a study issued in December. Polar researcher Drew Rothrock and colleagues compared ice soundings - taken by US Navy submarines between 1958 and 1976 - with soundings taken during scientific sub cruises from 1993 to 1997. …

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