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NASA says global icecaps melting

Alaskan SunriseWhen it rains, it pours, or so the saying goes, and data showing global warming has been appearing at an increasing rate lately. Last year has already been labeled the warmest on record, and now NASA has declared that the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have shrunk in the last decade, with a corresponding increase the sea level. Armed with ten years worth of precise and consistently measured data from satellites, NASA scientists have concluded that the changes match the predictions of computer models of global warming.

Though carefully phrased to be as non-controversial as possible, the report is still dramatic, especially considering that icecaps hold the vast majority of the world’s fresh water. According to the report, “The amount of water added to the oceans (20 billion tons) is equivalent to the total amount of freshwater used in homes, businesses and farming in New York, New Jersey and Virginia each year.”

And that may not be the worst of it. The NASA data is already four years old (collected 1992-2002), and a new study, referenced in the report, suggests that the overall picture may be even more grim, citing an increase in the speed of glaciers flowing into the ocean.

There is one bright spot to this report and the news articles inspired by it: it’s good to see NASA communicating potentially controversial global warming data to the public. With the controversies surrounding NASA recently, including climate scientist James Hansen’s claims that agency tried to “censor” him and the scandal surrounding the resignation of former spokesperson George Deutsch, the agency has been under tight scrutiny. Reports like this are a sign that science is back to being released without political spin.

While the pressure on NASA has moderated, Hansen continues pushing for more openness at NASA and other related government agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The Washington Post recently quoted Hansen, in a speech about the media policies of NOAA, comparing NOAA practices to those of Nazi Germany or the former Soviet Union.

The comparison is heavy-handed, but that makes the message no less significant: this issue affects everyone on the planet, and it is vital for the public to have unfettered access to accurate information, regardless of potential political consequences. Adding to the sense of urgency is the undeniable timeliness of the issue, as every year that passes without attempts to offset or eliminate the root causes of climate change makes it that much harder to remediate the problem down the line. “Delay of another decade,” Hansen has argued, “is a colossal risk.”

It is good, then, that NASA is doing a better job of releasing and publicizing the data it has gathered on global climate change. It’s just too bad that the news isn’t better.

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