The Maddening World of Glacial Melt and Its Politics

America’s single most pressing issue for the foreseeable future is a changing climate, more important than immigration, health care, or the ever-present wars because those can be fixed. The changing climate cannot be fixed. Once broken it stays broken, and it gets worse and worse until life becomes unbearable, too late to fix.

In that regard, it is believed that a small nucleus of people is behind the climate denial movement in America, and they have been successful. The U.S. Congress has thumbed its nose on the climate issue whilst its in-house deniers talk about how “the climate always changes” and the “science is suspect” or “there’s cheating,” or Al Gore is in cahoots with Hollywood, blah, blah, blah! Their flippant remarks are remarkably, singularly hollow in substance, but then again, so are they. More on this later—

Thence, they block any meaningful effort to challenge the climate change issue, as, for example, a nationwide all-out massive effort to get off the deadly fossil fuel bandwagon; it’s deadly.

Congress may dawdle while climate change surges ahead, but the price to pay is already registering in glacial melt, which challenges the world’s food supply, electric power supply, drinking water, agricultural irrigation, seawater rise, and navigable commercial waterways. And, if that’s not enough, it’ll kill Alpine skiing.

The Glacial Dilemma

It was the year 1912 when the Jakobshavn Isbrae Glacier in Greenland spawned an iceberg that rocked the world. Moreover, that iceberg’s image made it into the movies eighty-five years later, staring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic (20th Century Fox 1997), winning an Oscar (11) along the way.

Now, 102 years later, the infamous glacier is setting new records in its race to the ocean as the Jakobshavn flows at the rate of 150 feet/day. A new study in the journal Cryosphere finds that its flow rate is nearly three times its rate in the 1990s. 1

As far as massive (the big ones) glaciers go, that’s smokin’!

According to Penn State glaciologist Richard Alley, even though the Greenland ice sheet does not seem to be collapsing wholesale, the changes detected by Joughin, et al “… are not good news for the ice sheet or for people living near sea level.” 2

Why are the World’s Glaciers Melting like Crazy?

According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center (Boulder CO), Glaciers and Climate Change: “Heat-trapping gases, sometimes called ‘greenhouse gases,’ are the cause of most of the climate warming and glacier retreat in the past 50 years.” Kids in high school learn this stuff.

Amazingly: “The 1991 discovery of the 5,000 year-old ‘ice man,’ preserved in a glacier in the European Alps, fascinated the world . Tragically, this also means that this glacier is retreating farther now than it has in 5,000 years, and other glaciers are as well”.3

And, as for greenhouse gases, according to the EPA, greenhouse gases are defined, as follows: “Gases that trap heat in the atmosphere are called greenhouse gases.” Yes, they “trap heat,” and that is a problem of illimitable frightening dimensions. Conceivably, it’s off the charts kind of stuff.

As it so happens, using the United States as an example of GHG emissions, and measuring the four key gases; i.e., methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases, and carbon dioxide, 82% of the GHG emissions consist of carbon dioxide (CO2). And, CO2 enters the atmosphere principally via burning coal, natural gas, and oil, whereas solar and wind do not, repeating, solar and wind do not produce CO2.

Ipso facto, since greenhouse gases derive from burning fossil fuels, trapping heat, causing the big melt, and knowing that greenhouse gases derive from fossil fuels burned by humans, there really is no issue about what’s behind the global warming controversy. None whatsoever.

As such, why isn’t there a debate about whether the United States should get off of fossil fuels? Indeed, and candidly, there’s really nothing to debate about when the issue is so black and white, and maybe, that’s why there is no debate.

Unless, that is, there’s a more plausible explanation other than the burning of oil, gas, and coal as the cause of the relentlessly prodigious worldwide glacial melt-off, which is accelerating like crazy.

So, why isn’t the United States pushing a massive nationwide program of conversion from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy?

As for one example of what to do, a program similar to the big push to go to the moon in the 1960s would seem appropriate. Jeez, come to think about it, if the U.S. were smart enough to go the moon 50 years ago, shouldn’t the U.S. be smart enough today to see the light of day (yes, really for the first time), and convert from fossil fuels to renewables?

Especially so, when considering the upshot of not converting to renewables, as the disruptive colossal force of global warming unhinges agricultural crop production, which, in turn, will lead to riots in the streets with massive groups of pissed off people breaking down the gates, and well, the United States will start to resemble parts of the Middle East. Accordingly, local police departments are already starting to look the part.

Worldwide Glacial Status

The North Cascade Glacier Climate Project (“NCGCP”), Mauri S. Pelto, Director, Nichols College, Dudley, MA submits data about glaciers and ice sheets for the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Annual State of the Climate Report.

According to NCGCP:

Since 1980, glacier retreat has become increasingly rapid and ubiquitous, so much so that it has threatened the existence of many of the glaciers of the world. This process has increased markedly since 1995, leading to such bizarre steps as covering sections of Alpine glaciers in Austria with plastic to retard melting. The World Glacier Monitoring Servicehas noted 19 consecutive years of negative mass balances, that is volume losses.  If a business had 19 consecutive losing years they would be bankrupt.

All of which begs a poignant question for those in the denial camp of human-caused climate change/global warming: If not because of human use of fossil fuels; i.e., heat-trapping gases, then what is the specific cause of the monstrous meltdown?

Glacial Water Towers

The problem with continuing fossil fuel usage is as follows: A goodly portion of the planet depends upon glacial runoff for drinking water, irrigation of crops, or as a primary source for major commercial rivers, and for hydropower. And, the more glaciers recede, the more likely desperate people, short of water, will be forced to react in a desperate manner, like crashing the gates.

Glacial loss brings reduced summer runoff providing fewer resources for hydropower and irrigation, and drinking water in Europe, the Himalaya, Andes, and Western North America, and over time, major commercial rivers like the Yangtze turn anemic, as well, according to Cheng Haining, senior engineer at Qinghai Province’s Surveying and Mapping Bureau, seventy percent (70%) of the glaciers at the headwaters of the Lancang River, one of SE Asia’s most important rivers, known as the “Danube of the East,” have disappeared. Yes, 70%! That’s more than 2/3rds. 4

And, in South America, the World Bank has expressed deep concerns about shortages of water resources for more than 100 million people as a result of one-half of the Andes’s glaciers gone over the past 30 years. It only took three decades, whisking thru geologic time, to lose thousands of years of ice!

As it is, the chutzpah of the “cooling deniers” questioning the validity of the global warming issue may bring on a series of international debacles in the not too distant future.

Indeed, nature tells its own story. World famous glaciers tell a story that refutes the denial spin-doctors. For example, 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. So is the famous glacier that was at the foot of Mt. Everest, photographed by George Mallory in 1921, largely gone today.

“The glaciers are kind of a direct signal of climate change,” claims Samuel Nussbaumer, Science Officer, the World Glacier Monitoring Service at University of Zurich. 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, equivalent to a three-story building over one decade.

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, (FYI- The mean thickness of Alpine glaciers is 66-to-98 feet.)

But, the cooling crowd-denial group, mostly Republicans, claim temperatures are no big deal these days and certainly, certainly, certainly not influenced by humans. Therefore, Nussbaumer, who relates human-caused global warming to the temperature rise, should be on guard because the “Coolers” will probably slander him. It fits their modus operandi.

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. As it goes, Chinese scientists report significant measured glacial melting over the past 30 years (the “Coolers” will probably get them too.)

California is a good example of the importance of mountain water towers: “Snowpack is our frozen reservoir up there in the Sierra and the Cascade mountain ranges,” said Janine Jones, drought manager with the California Department of Water Resources. “So, although rainfall is important when it comes to getting us out of the drought, it’s actually the mountains that hold the key to our long-term water future.” 6

Widespread Craziness

Unless logic no longer functions in human reasoning, how is it possible that an entire nation, the United States, a developed country, not “a developing country,” ignores the urgency of converting from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy?

How is it possible?

Craziness is in the air. It’s as if some kind of an insane death wish, or longing for pain, has locked into the national psyche because nobody is screaming and fighting to get off the deathly tumbril of fossil fuels. Contrariwise, U.S. energy policy is locked into the “fracking” scene of independence by oblivion. As a matter of fact, America’s fossil fuel “energy independence” program is equivalent to the scorched earth tactics used during war.

Not only that, a total meltdown of the Arctic because of GHGs may be in the cards in the not too distant future, which could lead to runaway global warming, as humongous quantities of methane release from under the ice, within current lifetimes. Then, it’s too late, way too late… when the earth scorches the soles of feet as crops wither.

According to a Special Report in The Economist d/d June 16, 2012, The Melting North:

There is no serious doubt about the basic cause of the warming. It is, in the Arctic as everywhere, the result of an increase in heat-trapping atmospheric gases, mainly carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned… A heat map of the world, colour-coded for temperature change, shows the Arctic in sizzling maroon.

Ergo! High school students and The Economist know all about heat-trapping gases, mainly carbon dioxide, mainly carbon dioxide, mainly carbon dioxide, mainly….

And, just to think, there are people in the public domain, part of public discourse, who claim global warming is a ruse, temperatures are not a problem. Their worldview extends no farther than the National Mall.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, June 2014 was the hottest ever recorded since record keeping began in the 19th century. Ditto for May 2014. And, on a relative basis, Arctic weather is tropical.

Furthermore, breakneck titanic glacial melt is absolute tangible evidence that something’s amiss.

The Business of Climate Denial

The business of climate denial has served its purpose very well, very, very well indeed, by committing enough funds to shadowed policy wonk orgs and tinseled web sites and pseudo media personalities to make their point and turn the tide of public opinion, within Congress for sure.

Conservative billionaires used a secretive funding route to channel nearly $120m (£77m) to more than 100 groups casting doubt about the science behind climate change, the Guardian has learned.

The funds, doled out between 2002 and 2010, helped build a vast network of thinktanks and activist groups working to a single purpose: to redefine climate change from neutral scientific fact to a highly polarising “wedge issue” for hardcore conservatives.7

As it goes, the American public is numb to threats poised by burning fossil fuels, and the perpetrators of the great charade probably figure time is on their side, assuming it’ll hit the wall well beyond their years. But, suppose the unexpected happens?

As a matter of fact, it is already happening.

Still, politically speaking, if human-caused greenhouse gases are not behind the merciless, uncompromising, stop at nothing glacial melt-off, then what is it? Maybe ask Rick (“Galileo got outvoted for a spell”) Perry or Marco (“Humans aren’t causing climate change”) Rubio for some enlightenment. They’re full of answers.

As for clarification purposes, an overactive sun is not the culprit, and, needless to say, the “cooling argument” is silly, a real knee-slapper. The sun’s current space-weather cycle is the most anemic in 100 years. We are in Solar Cycle 24, and according to David Hathaway, research scientist at NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center, speaking at the American Astronomical Society’s Solar Physics Division: “Not only is this the smallest cycle we’ve seen in the space age, it’s the smallest cycle in 100 years.”8

Solution

The only realistic solutions to stopping radical climate change must be practical solutions, meaning courses of action that can be initiated within the framework of society as it stands. 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. All of which will bring forth a powerful economic renaissance with full employment, similar to the economy’s reaction to the invention and manufacture of the Model T; meanwhile, the massively extensive horse & buggy industry went broke. But, the economy hummed.

Postscript:

Things that normally happen in geologic time are happening during the span of a human lifetime.

— Daniel Fagre, U.S. Geological Survey – Global Change Research Program

Temperature rise isn’t something you can see. But a glacier melting is something everybody can see.

— Michael Zemp, Director, World Glacier Monitoring Service

  1. I. Joughin, et al, “Brief Communication: Further Summer Speedup of Jakobshavn Isbrae”, The Cryosphere, 8, 209-214, 2014 []
  2. Jane J. Lee (National Geographic), Greenland Glacier Races to Ocean at Record Speed,” National Geographic Daily News, February 4, 2014 []
  3. National Geographic, June 1 1993, volume 183, number 6, for an article titled ‘Ice Man’ by David Roberts. []
  4. Xinhua, “Glaciers in Tibetan Plateau Melting Fast due to Global Warming”, China Times, October 22, 2011. []
  5. “Shrinking Swiss Glacier Highlights Warming Trend”, The Local/Switzerland News, September 20, 2013. []
  6. Christina Loren, “California Drought 2014: Snowpack Pivotal to Ending Drought”, NBC/Bay Area, April 4, 2014. []
  7. Suzanne Goldenberg, US Environment Correspondent, “Secret Funding Helped Build Vast Network of Climate Denial Thinktanks”, The Guardian, February 14, 2013. []
  8. David Dickinson, “Solar Cycle #24: On Track to be the Weakest in 100 Years, Universe Today, July 29, 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.