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Race to save New Guinea treasures from global warming

by: AP    9 March 2006

LONDON: The unexplored wonders of New Guinea are being destroyed by global warming before scientists have even had a chance to examine the island, researchers say.

The mountainous island has been left virtually untouched by humans, the highlands too difficult for local tribesmen to access.

An almost constant cloud cover over the area means that even satellites have been unable to photograph what lies beneath.

An abundance of unknown flora and fauna as well as tropical glaciers is thought to exist there. Only last week, British researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, revealed the discovery of a new type of palm tree in the Wondiwoi Mountains.

New species of butterfly, frog, bird, plant and a tree kangaroo were found in the Foja mountains last month by the American group Conservation International.

But a US climate scientist, Michael Prentice of Plymouth State University, New Hampshire, has warned that many more of the island's treasures may die out before they are identified.

Writing in New Scientist, Dr Prentice said global warming was happening in the island, shared by Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, 20 times faster than previously thought.

While on the island, he found a series of unpublished meteorological data that showed temperatures have risen by 0.3 degrees every decade. "We have seven or eight good sets covering the period after the early 1970s.

"They show a real steep change, with warming of 0.3C every decade," he said. "This is five times the previous estimated warming for the region, and among the fastest in the world."

Glaciers around the island's highest peak, the 5030-metre Mount Jaya, are in constant retreat and have pulled back by 300 metres in 30 years.

"New Guinea is one of the most critical places for getting climate history, because these glaciers are in the heart of the El Nino region," said Dr Prentice's colleague Lonnie Thompson, of Ohio State University.

"They can tell us so much about the way the climate system works, but only if we get to them in time," Dr Thompson said.