Page last updated at 04:57 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Antarctica's cold awakening

Antarctic mountains. Image: BBC

By Richard Bilton
BBC special correspondent, Antarctica

It feels like stepping onto another planet.

As bleak as it is beautiful. A wind whipped landscape of snow and ice.

A place where the wind hurts if you stand too long, and spectacular views made of only three colours: the white of the snow, the blue of the sky and the grey of the odd rock.

There is wildlife here but apart from a few scientists, no people.

A place made of ice at the bottom of this world. An area bigger than Europe sat freezing and empty.

But what happens here affects us all.

Up close

Some 90% of all the ice on the globe is locked into Antarctica. If all of it melted, the oceans would rise by 70m (230ft).

That might not be on the cards, but fundamental things are changing here.

Troll research station sits between an enormous wave of ice and a mountain. It is run by the Norwegians and is full of scientists watching the skies, the ice and the temperature.

What they have seen recently has made them concerned. For years it looked like Antarctica had escaped global warming. Not anymore.

"We know the Antarctic peninsula has been warming," Jan-Gunnar Winther, the director, says.

It has brought us face to face with the kinds of consequences humanity could face if we don't do something about climate change
Sharam Syan
Indian government

"Now the latest research suggests wider areas are getting warmer."

If polar ice caps melt, sea levels everywhere could rise.

So Norway decided others should know what was happening. That environment ministers - who face a crucial year of trying to negotiate the next big climate change treaty - should understand the latest science. So they arranged a trip. To come and see global warming up close.

And they came. From the UK and US, from Russia and China: 16 nations in all, with differing positions on a climate change treaty, stood huddled together on the ice.

"It is important they came," says Norwegian Environment Minister Erik Solheim. "To get us away from the five-star hotels [where] we normally meet to get into nature.

"To get a feeling of what it's really about - the globe."

That freezing wind whips at VIPs as they are pulled on a sled from one location to another. Blue skies and white ground. A science trip on a grand scale.

Sharam Syan came from the Indian government. "Seeing is believing," he says.

"It has brought us face to face with the kinds of consequences humanity could face if we don't do something about climate change."

Hidden benefit

They look an odd bunch. Shuffling around on the Antarctic ice in bright red polar suits. But there is real power here.

"Today we've all heard the impact," Xie Zhenhua, who negotiates for China, tells me. "This can only help."

Everybody says similar things - about "learning" and "experiencing". What strikes me is how they began to get along.

Perhaps that is the hidden benefit. People who normally only meet at the negotiating table, sharing blankets to keep warm.

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