Abrupt Ice Shelf Collapse(s)

Imagine a 1,160 square mile ice sheet (equivalent in size to Los Angeles, Dallas plus Chicago), which had been stable for thousands of years, suddenly collapsing and crumbling into thousands of icebergs within weeks.

It happened in Antarctica, and the message therein challenges humankind to beware of its own devices, i.e., burning fossil fuels for energy.

A team of researchers from the University of Chicago and Princeton lead by Alison Banwell,1 may have cracked the code to what happened over a decade ago.

It was “like the smashing of glasses at the throw of a stone,” said University of Chicago geophysicist Douglas MacAyeal, co-researcher of the project, at an International Glaciological Society meeting in Beijing.2

What happened at Larsen B Ice Shelf is the warming atmosphere formed thousands of lakes on the surface, and as a result, here’s what the Banwell/MacAyeal’s study found: The disappearance (drainage) of one lake (only one lake) resulted in fractures under all the others: “An effect that can spread rapidly throughout the ice shelf.” Boom! Collapse! All of a Sudden! Abrupt climate change.

Their study begs numerous serious, daunting questions about abrupt climate change as a threat to major coastal cities of the world, if only because 85%+ of the world’s ice resides at the South Pole in Antarctica. And, as for starters: Is the Larsen B Ice Shelf collapse a renegade circumstance, or is it a nasty, threatening harbinger of more to come?

According to NASA, Earth Observatory, World of Change/larsenb: “The collapse of the Larsen appears to have been due to a series of warm summers on the Antarctic Peninsula… nor was the Larsen B the last Antarctic ice shelf to disappear. Farther down the peninsula to the southwest, the Wilkins Ice Shelf disintegrated in a series of break up events that began in February 2008 (late summer) and continued throughout Southern Hemisphere winter… It was the tenth major ice shelf to collapse in recent tines.”

So, it does not appear Larsen B was a renegade at all. It was just stupendously large, as “scientists monitoring daily satellite images… watched in amazement as almost the entire Larsen B Ice Shelf splintered and collapsed in just over one month. They had never witnessed such a large area… disintegrate so rapidly,” Ibid.

Pine Island Glacier

There’s a new kid on the block.

Pine Island Glacier (two-thirds the size of the UK), 1.2 miles thick, represents 10% of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet. It is the most closely watched glacier in the world and also the most treacherous with crevasses underfoot throughout.

Scientists have an especially keen eye on Pine Island Glacier because it has a greater net contribution of ice to the sea of any other ice drainage basin in the world. Alone, the loss of Pine Island might raise sea levels by less than half an inch, but if the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreated, this would raise sea levels by more than 10 feet.

Here’s the problem: Scientists fear a cascading Pine Island Glacier could lead to eventual destabilization of the entire West Antarctic Sheet.

On the other hand, the massive Antarctic Ice Sheet, which covers an area bigger than the continental U.S. contains 85%-90% of the world’s ice and could raise sea levels by over 200 feet, which (fortunately) would likely take centuries to collapse.

According to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), Pine Island has “…reached a point of no return. The Pine Island Glacier, if it is unstable may have implications for the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.”3

Dr. Gael Durand (glaciologist at Grenoble Alps University, Fr.) warns that all models suggest Pine Island Glacier has become unstable and even irreversible. The unstable condition is driven, not by higher air temperatures, but rather by a warming ocean at the bottom-waters, eroding the ice shelf.

As such, the ocean has been absorbing 90% of the planet’s heat.

By its very nature, it is important to digest the horrid consideration behind the unannounced crumbling of the Larsen B glacier within a few weeks, an abrupt climate change in real time. Nobody saw it coming!

Worldwide Glacier Melt

The glaciers of the world are under severe attack.

According to Daniel Fagre, U.S. Geological Survey Global Change Research Program, “Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime.”4

“From the Arctic to Peru, from Switzerland to the equatorial glaciers of Man Jaya in Indonesia, massive ice fields, monstrous glaciers, and sea ice are disappearing, fast.”4

Peru’s Quelccaya is the largest ice cap in the tropics, and if its current rate of melt continues, 600 feet per year, it will be gone by 2100. In turn, the Quelccaya provides large regions of South America with drinking water, irrigation for crops, and hydropower.

Speaking of large population centers with a dependence upon glaciers, the famed Garhwal Himalaya in India is retreating so fast that researchers are concerned about the disappearance of most of the central and eastern Himalayan glaciers.

Stopping Global Warming/Climate Change

The only realistic solutions to stopping climate change are practical solutions, meaning courses of action that can be initiated within the framework of society. Along these lines, Greenpeace has an initiative:

Greenpeace suggests people join local community organizations to shut down dirty coal plants all across the U.S., applying local pressure from coast-to-coast to switch to renewables. This is a practicable, yet challenging, solution, assuming enough community organizers can push enough hot buttons, and the Greenpeace initiative would include advocating strong laws to curb global warming as well as exposing climate deniers by holding them publicly accountable, and resulting in an Energy Revolution, advocating solar, wind power, and the full panoply of renewables.

But, hold on for one minute, the probability of gathering enough dedicated souls required for the Greenpeace initiative is about as probable as the U.S. Congress passing a bill requiring all coal-burning plants convert to solar power. No additional commentary necessary.

Hopeful Signs Abound Worldwide

Nevertheless, there are hopeful signs on the horizon, principally because of human ingenuity combined with science and technology. Here are a few examples from around the world:

In Seville, Spain, as of a few months ago, 27,000 homes started receiving electricity 24/7 from a remarkable new Concentrated Solar Power facility, Gemasolar, which utilizes molten salt to store heat to run the plant when the sun does not shine, whilst omitting 30,000 tons/year of CO2.

And, in green California, as of September 2013, the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert flipped the ‘on switch’, providing electricity from Concentrated Solar Power to 140,000 homes (mostly in San Francisco), omitting 400,000 tons/year of CO2 emissions.

New York announced (January 2014) a $1 billion plan to install enough solar-electric panels to power 465,000 homes. And, in Maine, a bill is under consideration to promote solar energy.

Regarding solar costs in general, since 2008, the price of photovoltaic modules fell 60%, which for the first time puts solar power on a Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE) competitive basis with conventional energy.5 This remarkable achievement over such a short period of time brings solar to the forefront of an expanding list of locations around the world.

Solar Energizing the World

Solar produces electricity in latitudes as far north as British Columbia, Canada.  For example, ultra overcast, cloudy Germany (in the same latitude as British Columbia) currently produces more solar-powered electricity than 20 nuclear power plants, thanks to enlightened political leadership.

Also, in Germany the price of solar panels has fallen 66% in recent years, and its cost of solar-generated power is projected to be less than coal within the next few years. Already, twenty-two percent (22%) of Germany’s power is from renewables of which twenty-five percent (25%) comes from solar. By way of comparison, solar power accounts for less than one percent (1%) of total U.S. electricity.

As an aside, and as for one more sorry example of America’s embarrassing problem of naiveté of all-things-science, Fox News, in a February 2013 broadcast, discussed Germany’s solar success, when it occurred to host Gretchen Carlson to ask her expert guest, Fox business reporter Shibani Joshi, why Germany’s solar-power sector is doing so well.

Carlson asked, “What was Germany doing correct? Are they just a smaller country, and that made it more feasible?”

Expert Joshi replied, “They’re a smaller country, and they’ve got lots of sun. Right? They’ve got a lot more sun than we do… sure, California might get sun now and then…but here on the East Coast, it’s just not going to work.”

Fact: Germany’s direct solar energy is equal to Canada’s, which is far and away lower direct solar energy than the U.S. Furthermore, the New York/Boston/Washington, D.C. corridor is a sunny tropical isle compared to Germany, which is north of Newfoundland.

Henceforth, over time, solar will likely slam the door shut on the 150-year ordeal with fossil fuel, which has drained hundreds of millions of years of decomposed plant and animal ooze as feedstock for a revolution, the industrial revolution, which unleashed a massive capitalistic heist of every resource imaginable, as well as politically undermining socio/economic progression/development of rugged individualism by a throwback to the day of serfs, peasants, villeins, servants, and yeomen… with a smattering of nobles. Sound complicated? It is, but on second thought, it really isn’t.

  1. Alison Banwell, et al., Breakup of the Larsen B Ice Shelf Triggered by Chain Reaction Drainage of Supraglacial Lakes, Geophysics Research Letters, 40, 5872-5876, DOI: 10.1002/2013GLO57694. []
  2. “Chain Reaction Shattered Huge Antarctica Ice Shelf,” Nature, August 9, 2013. []
  3. G. Durand, et al., “Retreat of Pine Island Glacier Controlled by Marine Ice-Sheet Instability,” Nature Climate Change, doi: 10.1038/nclimagte2094, Jan. 12, 2014. []
  4. Daniel Glick, “Signs From Earth: The Big Thaw,” National Geographic, June 2007. [] []
  5. Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance. []

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.