Relentless Melt

Greenland, July 2012

Remarkably, from July 8, when 40% of the melt had already occurred, to July 12, four days later, 97% of the island’s surface ice had thawed into slush. Most of the thaw occurred in a scant four days time! Son Nghiem of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA explained, “This was so extraordinary that at first I questioned the result: Was this real or was it due to a data error?1

Meanwhile, as of September 2013, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is readying their 5th Assessment Report (AR5), but regardless of what it says about whether global warming is increasing, decreasing, or staying about the same, the entire planet is involved in a common phenomenon – relentless ice melt, which continues increasing year-after-year-after-year. The ice is melting, and the evidence is everywhere to see.

Ice melt is happening all across the planet from Antarctica, to the Andes, to Alaska, to the Arctic (loss of 40% of mass, so far), to Siberia, to the Alps, to the Tibetan Plateau and on it goes around the world as it melts like there is no tomorrow, and there may not be a tomorrow for coastal cities like Miami, as well as for billions of people who depend upon glaciers for crop irrigation (like China 80% and India 60%), drinking water, and commercial waterways, like the Rhone River. This, of course, ignores the fate of Alpine skiing, which is a separate topic from the survival of humanity.

Speaking of which, the iconic Chacaltaya Ski Resort in Peru (Est. 1938), the world’s highest ski area at 17,785 ft. and higher than the Mt. Everest base camp, is permanently closed. The glacier is gone.

Similarly, the enormous glacier immediately below Mt. Everest that George Mallory photographed in 1921 has completely disappeared. It is gone forever.

Ice is melting faster and faster (the rate of melt is speeding up almost every year) across the world, and it threatens the survival of civilization. The worst-case consequences, other than a huge abrupt rise in sea level as the result of a “tipping point,” would most likely result in food panic, political unrest, and ground wars.

The culprit behind this threat is the burning of fossil fuels to power the world’s economy. But, in the final analysis, with a disharmonious outcome, the world’s economy may change in a big way by reverting to a Paleolithic economy like the hunter-gatherer societies around 500,000 B.C. This is what happens when convenience stores run out of food.

This would not be likely if not for the burning of fossil fuels, and of course, there are disparate theories about the causes behind global warming, but common sense science points the accusing finger at humans. Here’s the reason why: The ice melt and increasing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere (caused by burning fossil fuels) are working in tandem. Today, CO2 levels at 400 ppm are the highest in millions of years whilst scooting ever-upwards in concert with similar loss of ice mass, which, as well, has accelerated over the past few decades. The two are on a parallel pathway of one increasing as the other decreases.

South American Water Supplies Threatened

In the high altitudes of South America 1,600 years of ice formation melts in 25 years according to a recent scientific study, which found extraordinarily large portions of the Quelccaya Ice Cap melting away in just 25 years. Quelccaya is the world’s largest tropical ice sheet and located in the Peruvian Andes.2

Meredith A. Kelly, glacial geomorphologist, Dartmouth College calculates the current melting at Quelccaya at least as fast, if not faster, than anything in the geological record books since the end of the last ice age.

“Throughout the Andes, glaciers are now melting so rapidly that scientists have grown deeply concerned about water supplies for the people living there.”3

Alaskan Water Supply Challenged

Moreover, researchers at the University of Alaska Southeast are currently investigating an ancient forest (more than 1,000 years old), which was suddenly exposed under the melting Mendenhall Glacier, which flows into a lake near Juneau. The Mendenhall Glacier is retreating at an average rate of 170 feet per year, ever since 2005.

As well, authorities in Alaska have expressed concern as Anchorage, the state’s most populated city, relies entirely upon the retreating Eklutna Glacier for drinking water. According to a USGS study: “… the Eklutna Glacier has retreated dramatically over the last 50 years… already altered the density-driven stratification of the lake with implications for water treatment and reservoir volume.”4

Who would’ve ever guessed a city in Alaska (Yes, Alaska!) the land of ice, snow, and the great outdoors, would succumb to concerns over water sources?

Switzerland: Land of Glaciers

“The glaciers are kind of a direct signal of climate change,” claims Samuel Nussbaumer, a scientist with the World Glacier Monitoring Service at University of Zurich in an article.5

According to a study by the European Topic Centre on Air Pollution and Climate Change Mitigation, from 2000 to 2010, the Alpine glaciers on average lost more than 3.25 feet of thickness per year. Nussbaumer says the rate of shrinkage is increasing by the year, and he says rising temperatures are the main explanation. “These ice giants could disappear literally in the space of a human lifetime, or even less,” according to Sergio Savoia of the WWF’s Alpine office.

The Alpine glaciers serve as Europe’s water tower, similar to how the Tibetan Plateau, the “Third Pole,” serves as the water tower for India and China and neighboring countries (Chinese scientists report significant measured glacial melting over the past 30 years). As well, the glaciers feed our big, commercial rivers like the Rhone, Po, and the Danube.

The famous Morteratsch Glacier is one of Switzerland’s tourists’ attractions. Ursula Reis, a 73-year-old from Zurich, has been visiting the big glacier every year since 1953, and she says: “I have seen the shrinkage. It’s amazing and frightening at the same time.”

Antarctica: 85% of the World’s Ice

Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica is of utmost interest to the world of climate scientists because it has a greater net contribution of ice to the sea than any other ice drainage basin in the world.

For decades, Pine Island Glacier was considered too dangerous and too remote to explore, but a resolute team of scientists finally accomplished this task in 2012-13. The glacier is the biggest source of uncertainty in global sea level projections, according to Martin Truffer, professor of physics, University of Alaska, Fairbanks, “I think it is fair to say that the largest potential sea level rise signal in the next century is going to come from this area.”

Pine Island Glacier research, as of September 2013, has now detailed ice melt below the massive Pine Island Glacier, conducted by the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS), Department of Oceanography, Monterey, California. NPS worked in tandem with Penn State University, NASA, the British Antarctic Survey, and New York University to understand what is happening beneath the gigantic glacier, a 37-mile long ice tongue.

For the first time ever, scientists now have detailed analysis, published in the journal of Science on September 13, 2013: “This is the first observation of the actual melt rate underneath the ice shelf,” according to Timothy Stanton, oceanographer at NPS, “…these are actual in situ measurements.”

The measured melt rate is as high as 2.36 inches per day or about 72 feet per year in the middle of the channels. Additionally, the scientists calculate that the melting at the “grounding line” doubles to approximately 144 feet per year.

The researchers used hot-water drills to penetrate the 1,460-foot thick ice shelf and lowered oceanographic instruments. They discovered warm ocean water is eating away at the underside of the ice shelf.

Along these lines, over 3,000 Argo Floats in the ocean around the world measure the ocean’s portion of the total heat content of the planet. Remarkably, the ocean has been absorbing 90% of Earth’s heat content over the past few decades.

In turn, a warming ocean leads to a thinning of the ice shelf. The question remains, how long will the Pine Island Glacier remain relatively stable, but if it does not, one day in the distant future, coastal cities will need to build dykes.

U.S. Position on Climate Change

It is a fair statement that only the world’s major governments have the muscle to do something about the threat of climate change because Tuvalu (9 square miles), Seychelles (107 sq. miles), and Malta (122 sq. miles) combined couldn’t round up enough muscle to do any more than a colony of ants attempting to tackle Mount Everest, but they’ll be the first to suffer the consequences of no action. As such, the U.S. and the EU are the logical leaders to do something constructive to help prevent global warming’s relentless melt.

Yet, unless your living in a cave, you must be aware of the right-wing politicized effort in America to disparage any efforts to arrest human-caused climate change. Ruthlessly, the denial crowd goes after anybody who stands out in favor of fixing the broken climate. And, this, therefore, begs the big question of: Why?

Seemingly, the answer is very simple. It’s a matter of money and fossil fuel interests. But, maybe the rationale goes deeper than that.

In this regard, by opposing mandatory cuts to greenhouse gas emissions, all stripes of conservatives can agree, uniting social conservatives, moderate conservatives, plain conservatives, libertarians, and tea partiers. As such, even though the maxim “ agree to disagree” may define the art of politics, this solid base of opposition to fixing climate change is a common issue that glues together the functionality of their political party apparatus.

For example, libertarians tend to have a lot of differences with conservatives on issues like immigration and war, but when it comes to climate change, if there are differences, they are not nearly as pronounced. Thus, the rallying cry around denial of human-caused climate change binds together the roughshod elements.

Along these lines, denial of human-caused climate change serves to hold together otherwise disparate elements, but still, there must be more substance behind the right wing’s overt hatred of environmentalists.

Another answer is found psychologically, where there is a case to be made that ‘strength’ has always been a proxy for the ability to defend or acquire resources. Along these lines, researchers at Aarhus University, Denmark studied data on bicep size, upper-body strength and political views in America, Argentina, and in Denmark. Results: Weaker men support welfare causes whereas in all three countries the strong men support self-interests over welfare programs. As such, caring for the climate is altruistic behavior, and maybe this helps explain why so many climate change deniers look like deniers.

And, at the risk stepping into a minefield of controversy, academics in Canada conducted analyses, published in Psychological Science, of more than 15,000 people and found that right-wing views make the less intelligent feel safe (think about the enormous very large constituency at hand.) The authors claim that conservative politics are part of a complex relationship that leads people to prejudices, and they feel safe with the status quo as represented by conservative views. Therefore, by extension, denying the advocates of climate change solidifies the party faithful (voters) similar to how it cements together the disparate elements of the party officeholders.

Thus, from the voters in the streets to the legislators in Congress, denial of human-caused climate change serves to cement together the entire Republican Party apparatus. Therefore, even though moneyed interests is at the core of the climate change issue, the very survival of many disparate political elements, conjoined under the Republican umbrella, is more a function of a common enemy that threatens to change America than anything else. And, as mentioned previously, people of a certain intelligence quotient are prone to buy into the politics of resisting change. And, the biggest, loudest common denominator they fight is the outcry by “naïve, baited environmentalists” who want to change from fossil fuels to renewables. That’s one big change!

As such, the battle lines have been rigidly formed regardless of how much ice melts around the world and no matter how ‘milquetoast’ the upcoming IPCC AR5 report is characterized by the right wing. The public outcry of greens versus the stealth of dirty fossil fuel money is deadlocked in a relentless battle until the waters either overwhelm NYC or recede for good.

As such, based upon simple observation, and if the glaciers and the ice sheets are the odds-makers, then the odds are 100-to-1 that NYC should start planning to build dykes.

  1. Source: National Geographic News, July 25, 2012. []
  2. Source: L.G.Thompson, et al., Annually Resolved Ice Core Records of Tropical Climate Variability Over the Past ~ 1800 Years, Science, Vol. 340, no. 6135, May 24, 2013. []
  3. Justin Gillis, In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melted in 25 Years, New York Times, April 4, 2013. []
  4. The Diminishing Role of Glacier Runoff into Eklutna Lake; Potential Impacts of Hydropower and Water Supply for the Municipality of Anchorage, State Water Resources Research Institute Program, Alaska, Principal Investigator: Michael Gregg Loso, 2009-2010. []
  5. Nina Larson, Trail of Melting Swiss Glacier Shows Climate Change in Action, Phys.Org, September 20, 2013. []

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.