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Interview With Richard Kerr

Aired August 31, 2002 - 07:45   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Explorers have long dreamed of finding a sea roof from Europe to Asia to the Arctic to the Northwest Passage. It would shorten the journey by thousands of miles, compared with going all the way around the tip of Africa or to the Panama Canal.
Now, a science writer and a team of scientists say global warming may make the so-called Northwest Passage a practical reality, perhaps in the next decade. Richard Kerr writes for "Science" magazine and they're out with an article this week, which talks about the whole issue of the polar ice caps. Richard Kerr, good to have you with us.

RICHARD KERR, SCIENCE MAGAZINE: Morning, Miles, good to be here.

O'BRIEN: All right, there's a lot of information in all of this, and I just wanted to get the broad brush at the start, here. Generally speaking, what we're talking about here are melting ice caps. What does that mean?

KERR: Well, what you've got is a few yard think layer of ice over the entire Arctic Ocean, most of the time. But, in recent years, there's been some changes noted -- there's been a pullback of the ice in the summer, there's been some thinning of the ice. You can see this from submarines going under the ice. Satellites flying over the Arctic. So there's been a shrinkage of the ice covering the Arctic, and looking ahead scientists -- their best thinking is that its going to continue in the long run, and eventually open up some open water right on through the entire Northwest Passage.

O'BRIEN: All right, now that's -- that might be good news for shipping because right now if you want to go to the Northwest passage, you need an ice breaker to go with and that makes it not economically viable. That might be good news but it doesn't sound like good news for the planet as a whole.

KERR: No, there's two sides to it, there's -- the ice has been an obstacle for centuries. Explorers have sought that Northwest Passage for the obvious economic reasons, but the ice also provides an essential platform for a lot of those living on the planet. Polar bears look to the ice for -- as a platform to hunt their seals. Walrus' use it for diving to the bottom to get their food. The native peoples that live around the Arctic find the ice to be essential to their indigenous lifestyle. So, there'd be a lot of changes in the coming decades as global warming drives this ice loss.

O'BRIEN: Now, there was a NASA study from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory also came out and that was folded into your article, correct?

KERR: Which one are you referring to, I'm not sure?

O'BRIEN: Well, it's the one that just came out of JPL taking about the shifting ice in the Antarctic, and that seems to be a related issue, that's why I asked.

KERR: Well, both poles are experiencing some warming but they're very different situations. In the south. And the Antarctic. The ice has been particularly hard hit on the Palmer Peninsula, the land jutting up toward South America. And there, we've all heard about the big chunks of shelf ice breaking way from the peninsula and drifting off as huge icebergs.

O'BRIEN: All right, we have a graphic showing from this NASA study, which shows Antarctica. And what this shows is depending on the color, the more yellow colors in these areas here, in dictate high velocity changes, shifting ice, in these areas. And, I'm -- the point is, I guess, from this study is that it's hard to draw any major conclusions except to say that it is very interesting to watch. What would you speculate is going on?

KERR: Well, I think the best thinking at the moment probably is that the big ice up on Antarctica is probably not changing very much in total volume. The areas of concern are more around West Antarctica that spit of land heading off towards South America where the Palmer Peninsula is. The concern there is that some of that ice is -- could move off the peninsula and out to sea and that could be happening now, it could be accelerated by global warming, and there's concerns -- some signs that that could be happening fairly fast and that would perhaps over the next couple of centuries, it could raise sea levels by many meters.

O'BRIEN: So, let's talk about the implications of that before we break away, should we all be buying real estate in Nevada in hopes that it will be ocean front very soon? Is this something that in the grand scheme of our daily worries we should be concerned about?

KERR: Concern, yes. Panic, no. It's one of those issues that is on a time scale past the Congressional or the administration's time scale and should be concerned enough to seriously consider more research and perhaps a little insurance. Just in case. But, I wouldn't retreat from the shore right away.

O'BRIEN: All right, Richard Kerr, with the Journal of Science, thank you very much for being with us. And, that is in the current issue, a comprehensive look at what's going on with the polar ice caps.




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