Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Planet is Melting - When Will We Wake Up and Listen?!

Several recent headlines ought to give us all pause. 'The Earth is melting!' they tell us, but are we listening? If we were, we would be crying out, it's time to start fighting global warming, for it may already be nearing the point where it is too late...

The Arctic is Melting

The first in this series of frightening headlines is a reprise of the news that prompted the first post here at Watthead: a new study of the Arctic permafrost confirms the previous warnings this summer from Russian and American researchers that increasing temperatures in the Arctic are melting vast tracts of Arctic permafrost, threatening sea level rise and the release of huge quantities of methane currently locked in the frozen ground. The study forecasts that global warming will thaw and shrink the total area of perennially frozen ground 60 to 90 percent by 2100, according to Discovery News. To give you a sense of scale, the area of permafrost lost by 2100 could match or exceed the total land area of Australia!

The melting of arctic permafrost on this scale will increase the freshwater run-off into the Arctic Ocean by 28 percent and upset ecosystems over wide areas, according to the study. Even more scary though, is that it will also lead to the release of vast doses of greenhouse gases, currently locked up as methane in the frozen ground.

The warnings this summer called attention to an area of Siberian permafrost spanning a million square kilometers - the size of France and Germany combined - that has recently started to melt for the first time since it formed at the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago. This portion of the melting Arctic alone, "which covers the entire sub-Arctic region of western Siberia, is the world's largest frozen peat bog and scientists fear that as it thaws, it will release billions of tons of methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere."

This melting permafrost scenario is exactly the kind of 'tipping point' scenario that climate scientists fear - a delicate threshold where a slight rise in the Earth's temperature can cause a dramatic change in the environment that itself triggers a far greater increase in global temperatures. Increasing Arctic temperatures melt permafrost, releasing billions of tons of methane, rapidly accelerating regional as well as global warming trends. And once this methane gets out of the soil, there's no putting it back. As the Guardian article from this summer makes clear:

Climate scientists yesterday reacted with alarm to the finding, and warned that predictions of future global temperatures would have to be revised upwards.

"When you start messing around with these natural systems, you can end up in situations where it's unstoppable. There are no brakes you can apply," said David Viner, a senior scientist at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia.

"This is a big deal because you can't put the permafrost back once it's gone. The causal effect is human activity and it will ramp up temperatures even more than our emissions are doing."
Melting permafrost spawns another smaller feedback scenario: as permafrost thaws, it reveals bare ground which warms up more quickly than ice and snow, and so accelerates the rate at which the permafrost thaws.

Greenland's Glacier Loss Accelerating

The next headline involves the glaciers of Greenland. According to a recent study published in Science, the amount of ice that Greenland's glaciers dump into the Atlantic Ocean has almost doubled in the last five years because glaciers are moving faster. The study is the first to incorporate recent changes in glacier velocity into estimates of the overall mass of ice being lost for nearly all of Greenland.

Rising surface air temperatures appear to be culprit, causing the increases in glacier speed in the southern half of Greenland, according to the authors of the study. This study's conclusions imply that many estimates of Greenland’s future contributions to sea-level rise could be too low.

According to the study's author, Eric Rignot or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory:
"The behavior of the glaciers that dump ice into the sea is the most important aspect of understanding how an ice sheet will evolve in a changing climate. It takes a long time to build and melt an ice sheet, but glaciers can react quickly to temperature changes."
Over the past 20 years, air temperatures in southeast Greenland have risen by 3ยบ Celsius. According to the authors of the study, the warmer temperatures increase the amount of melt water reaching the glacier-rock interface where it then serves as a lubricant that accelerates glaciers’ flow towards the ocean.

Including the increased glacier speeds, the authors calculate that Greenland contributes about 0.5 millimeters per year to global sea level rise, more than two-thirds of which are the result of the faster glacier speeds. Greenland's glacier melt thus contributes over 16% of total global sea level rise, which currently stands at 3 millimeters per year. [See this Green Car Congress article for more]

The Antarctic Ice Sheet is Losing Mass

Yes, that's right, not being one to let it's cousin to the North show it up, the Antarctic has begun melting as well. According to a new study performed by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, the Antarctic ice sheet, which harbors 90 percent of all the Earth’s ice, has lost significant mass in recent years, most of it coming from the West Antarctic ice sheet.

The study's findings are particularly significant because they contradict the predictions of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, completed in 2001, which projected that the Antarctic ice sheet would in fact gain mass in the 21st century due to increased precipitation in a warming climate.

According to researchers from the British Antarctic Survey, the melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone, which is about eight times smaller in volume than the East Antarctic ice sheet, would raise global sea levels by more than 20 feet! Such an event would clearly constitute a global disaster and represents one of the worst of the possible 'nightmare' Global Climate Change scenarios. The possible deglaciation of that polar ice sheet as well as that of Greenland, discussed above, are two topics of considerable concern in the recent British report on Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change (see this Green Car Congress post for more).

As GCC points out, Antarctica, the fifth largest continent, is the Earth’s highest, windiest, coldest, and driest land mass. Nearly all - 99.7% - of the frigid continent's surface is covered by a vast ice sheet with an average thickness of two kilometers and a total volume of ~25 million cubic kilometers. Floating ice shelves constitute about 11% of the continent.

[Check out the UC-Boulder press release for an 'enhanced' video podcast discussing the study's ominous findings.]

Warming Arctic Climate Alters Food Chain

Finally, Arctic critters - whales, walruses, seabirds, fish and more - are all struggling to survive the changing climate of the Bering Sea, their northern feeding grounds which have been disrupted, perhaps permanently, by higher temperatures and melting ice, scientists reported this Thursday in the journal Science.

The authors of the study, an international research team, concluded that they are witnessing the transformation of an entire ecosystem, not only a concern for those creatures who call the Bering Sea home, but also to Americans as the region is home to almost half of all U.S. commercial fish production.

All in all, the researchers said, the Arctic climate of the northern Bering Sea is in full retreat, yielding to the sub-Arctic system of the south, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The changes are "profound" and perhaps irreversible, even if cold weather eventually returns, the researchers said.

According to the Chronicle:
Wildlife experts long have worried about the response of single species to the region's fickle weather patterns, which can fluctuate dramatically from one decade to the next. From season to season, they have cataloged puzzling but apparently unrelated die-offs of seabirds, rare algal blooms and odd migration patterns.
Now, after analyzing two decades' worth of wildlife observations, the researchers have tied these previously unexplained die-offs to the climate records which clearly document warmer water currents, rising air temperatures and vanishing ice packs.

Overall, the Arctic is warming at twice the global rate. As a result of such temperature increases, sea ice in the Bering Sea now melts three weeks earlier than in 1997. Last year, Arctic ice retreated further than in 25 years of satellite monitoring, the Chronicle reports.

The researches "put all the pieces of the puzzle together" and found that ecosystems in the Bering Sea, and most likely elsewhere in the Arctic as well, have been thrown into disorder due to increasing sea and air temperatures. As the Chronicle reports:
The researchers found that by 2002, Pacific gray whales were fleeing northward to feed in cooler currents, while pink salmon by the millions swarmed into warmer waters the whales had abandoned. Bottom-dwelling species, unable to adapt, were decimated.

As sea ice diminished, breeding grounds for seals were disrupted and populations plummeted. Polar bears started to drown. Walruses, accustomed to diving in the shallows to feed along the sea bottom, found themselves adrift on broken ice floes in waters 6,500 feet deep. The animals starved.


Considered individually, each of these recent headlines offer may offer a slight scare to those who are paying attention, but for most, they are likely simply ignored, dismissed as an isolated event, or forgotten in time.

Taken together, however, these headlines, and the dozens of others like them, should make it clear that these are not isolated incidents. Rather, they tell a clear story of a polar regions already feeling the effects of Global Climate Change.

To me, the message is loud and clear: Climate Change is not some far-off concern, merely an issue of eventual concern but one whose arrival is still several decades away, allowing us time to continue to enjoy our fossil-fuel addicted lifestyles while we ponder the best - i.e. the least painful - way to mitigate it's effects. No, the harbingers of Climate Change are already amongst us, and news such as the headlines discussed above ought to remind us that we must begin to act deliberately and rapidly.

Climate Change may not come the day after tomorrow, but neither will it come decades from now, as some assume. For it may already be too late for certain regions, like the Arctic and Antarctic, and the longer we wait to act, the more likely the Earth will pass the next tipping point, hurtling us ever faster along the path towards climactic Global Climate Change.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, it's time to start fighting global warming, like yesterday, people!


bob said...

Certainly this is bad news for the near term (say a few hundred years), but it's not the first time the earth has experienced profound climate shifts. Nor is it the first time humans have been exposed to huge swings in global climate. Life, including mankind, will go on, perhaps a bit changed. We will also become a bit wiser ... so we can make new mistakes.

WattHead said...

Bob, you are right, this isn't the first time humans and the earth have experienced climate shifts, nor will it be the last ... but, the distinct difference this time is that we humans are responsible for the climate shift.

Never before has any species had such a profound impact on the entire planet, and I don't feel comfortable letting us off the hook simply because this kind of thing has happened naturally before.

Sure, life (some species at least, probably including humans) will go on even if we do nothing to mitigate climate change.

But how many species will go extinct, how many ecosystems will be destroyed, how many humans will see their homes flooded, their crops innundated with sea water, their children subject to new epidemics, their traditional agricultural methods no longer productive, etc. due not to a natural event - an ice age or a comet or fluctuations in solar radiation - but rather the result of human activity?!

This is why I argue that we cannot be complacent when it comes to climate change. We are responsible for this mess, and it is thus our duty to mitigate its consequences as best as we can. It is not necessary that we have such an impact on the planet. We could live lighter, healthier and more sustainably upon the earth. A sustainable energy future is possible ... we simply must make it happen!

seekthetruthall said...

Can you "prove" man is responsible for global warming? Believe it or not, Global Warming is not due to human contribution of Carbon Dioxide (CO2). This in fact is the greatest deception in the history of science. We are wasting time, energy and trillions of dollars while creating unnecessary fear and consternation over an issue with no scientific justification. Incredibly, the much-publicized United Nations climate change report, which blames global warming on people, has no published science to back it up.

The front page Washington Post story about the report waited until the 20th paragraph of a 21-paragraph story to mention that the "detailed scientific documentation" for the claim is not yet available and won't be released "for a few months."

A New York Times account waited until the 40th paragraph of a 44-paragraph story to disclose that "thousands of pages of technical background," supposedly the basis for the alarming conclusions, would be released later in the year.

To project a doom and gloom attitude with NO scientific basis is just plain animal fodder. Other climate scientists that refuse to be coerced by the liberals use real science to back up their claims. Open your eyes and seek the truth:,2933,250059,00.html
Inconvenient Truth:
The True Science:

This is what happens if you disagree with global warming activists:
List of articles by on global warming: