Antarctica: The Big Kahuna

It is quite interesting, to see the sun wander round the heavens at so to speak the same altitude day and night. I think somehow we are the first to see this curious sight.

— Roald Amundsen’s diary, upon arriving at the South Pole in 19111

Climate change (aka: global warming/aberrant weather patterns), which is a consequence of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated by fossil fuels, may go down in the history books as humankind’s biggest challenge. The case can be made that CO2 threatens all life on planet earth. Other than an all-out nuclear war, there is nothing throughout the history of humankind that compares to the potential destructiveness of CO2 emissions.

There is no getting around the evidence that: (1) CO2 absorbed into the oceans is killing coral reefs, home to nine million species: (2) one-half the 20,000-year-old glaciers in the Andes have completely disappeared over the past 20 years, threatening the water resource for 100 million people; (3) the world’s highest ski area, Chacaltaya (Bolivia) is bone dry and permanently closed because the glacier is gone; (4) the enormous Columbia Glacier in Alaska has retreated 10 miles up the fjord the past 30 years; (5) the Arctic Ice Sheet is 1/3rd its thickness of 30 years ago, and it is expected to be ice-free within a decade… opening up a new bonanza of exploration for oil and gas; (6) Greenland’s summer melt lakes are splitting apart surface ice and cascading down crevasses at the speed of Niagara Falls, possibly all the way onto bedrock 1-2 miles below that could be slip n’sliding the 1,500 x 500 mile ice sheet towards the ocean; (7) global drought conditions caused by an out-of-kilter climate are threatening humankind’s basic food supplies as agricultural land turns parched from Russia-to-Syria-to-America and around the world; (8) storm patterns have become unpredictably destructive, e.g., NYC, and costly for insurance companies.

It is no accident that climate change is in an acceleration phase ever since the 1980s; it was in the early 1990s when China’s Deng Xiaoping launched the slogan, “Enrich yourselves!” That’s approximately when China did a U-turn, deciding to adopt state capitalism and special economic zones of capitalism. Ever since, CO2 emissions have been on a tear. China adds one new coal plant weekly and 40,000 new automobiles per day to the worldwide CO2 mix, and automobile ownership per capita in China is only 175 per thousand versus 812 per thousand in the U.S., and China already surpassed the U.S. in 2010 as the largest auto market.

Remarkably, climate change is happening so rapidly (which is “the acceleration phase” when glacial time compresses into decades), that it is finally occurring in real time right before our eyes rather than begrudgingly over the centuries in glacial time; meanwhile, CO2 increasingly spews into the atmosphere and into the oceans like there is no tomorrow… and there may not be a tomorrow as this process of potential self-destruction accelerates.

Fortunately, and so far, Antarctica has been impacted less by the changing climate than Greenland and the Arctic; however, it may be a good idea not to throw caution to the wind because the definition of climate change is: Expect the unexpected!

The Big Kahuna

Antarctica, the only continent that experiences six months of total darkness and six months of continuous daylight, is the coldest, driest, and windiest of the seven continents, and it has the highest average elevation of all continents. It is a desert with annual precipitation of only 8 inches along the coastlines but much less inland. The continent is huge at 5.4 million square miles, the size of the United States plus Mexico combined, and it is cold. Temperatures can reach -129 F. The average summer temperature is 20 degrees F, and the average winter temperature is -30 F.

Antarctica is covered by a sheet of ice one-to-two miles thick. Ten years ago a drill core of 9,396 feet (nearly two miles deep) recovered ice that scientists say is 530,000 years old.2

Antarctica is The Big Kahuna of the climate change equation and of the conundrum of rising sea levels, hovering like the Sword of Damocles over all humanity, because: “Glaciologists are still far from divining the fate of Earth’s ice in a warming world, but they have finally agreed on what the past century’s warming has done to the great ice sheets, and it isn’t pretty.”3

Antarctica is the world’s largest ice sheet. “The ice sheets would raise sea levels by more than 200 feet if they completely melted over centuries—not likely, but even a tenth of that would have catastrophic impacts on coastal areas.”4

The National Academy of Sciences ‘09 sea level prediction was that seas could rise by 1.3 feet to 4.6 feet by 2100, depending upon how the planet responds to the changing climate; however, a quick perusal of scientific research over the decades casts doubt on any predictions because, as time marches on, scientists increasingly express surprise, and concern, over how much faster climate change occurs, typically stating, “this is happening much faster than we thought it would just a few years ago.” Therefore, the trend is not the planet’s friend as far as predictions about how fast the ice melts and how high the seas rise and how quickly the oceans lose primary marine habitat as nine million species are threatened to extinction. It is, in fact, extremely disturbing that, as time passes, the bar keeps moving up… never down!

In that regard, Antarctica is melting from its underside where warm ocean currents are undermining portions of the expansive continent.5 Additionally, a recent article in Science confirms this trend, Nov. 30, 2012 by Richard A. Kerr, Experts Agree Global Warming Melting the World Rapidly, states, “Glaciologists are especially concerned about the acceleration of losses… In West Antarctica, the accelerating loss comes from the accelerating rush of glaciers to the sea, probably brought on by warmer seawater melting the underside of the glaciers’ floating ice shelves. The new analysis… also makes it clear that losses from Greenland and West Antarctica have been accelerating, showing that some ice sheets are disconcertingly sensitive to warming.”

Skeptics Claim Antarctica is Gaining Ice

Skeptics claim Antarctica is gaining ice, not losing ice; however, “Skeptic arguments that Antarctica is gaining ice frequently hinge on an error of omission, namely ignoring the difference between land ice and sea ice… sea ice is growing”6 because of diminished ozone levels causing stratospheric cooling and freezing more open waters and because of the changing climate.

But, “Antarctica is losing land ice as a whole, and these loses are accelerating quickly.”6 At the end of the day, even though sea ice melts and freezes with regularity, it is already part of the sea level. It is the land ice that affects sea levels, not sea ice. Based upon statements in scientific journals, the skeptics need to behave like “real scientists” and review the entire picture, not just snapshots of how “sea ice” is behaving.

When Antarctica was Green, CO2 levels were relatively close to today’s levels

A university-led study by Alan Buis (Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena), Robert Perkins (University of Southern California), and Zac Lemoine, (Louisiana State University), in concert with NASA, as of June 17, 2012, discovered that the ancient Antarctica climate of 15-20 million years ago, 40 million years after dinosaurs became extinct, was much warmer, and wetter, than previously understood. The climate was suitable to support substantial vegetation, including stunted trees along the edges of the continent of Antarctica. Studies show temperatures reached as high as 45 degrees F. during the height of the Miocene Period.

“Warm conditions during the middle Miocene are thought to be associated with carbon dioxide levels of around 400 to 600 parts per million (ppm). In 2012, carbon dioxide levels have climbed to 393 ppm, the highest they’ve been in the past several million years. At the current rate of increase, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are on track to reach middle Miocene levels by the end of this century… scientists do not yet know precisely why carbon dioxide was at these levels during the middle Miocene….”7

Therefore, if history is a roadmap to the future, the world needs to seriously consider eliminating its addiction to fossil fuels. Coincidentally, the height of the Miocene Age appears to be nearly comparable to where today’s climate is headed in the 21st century. People should hope and pray the next several decades do not follow the script of the Miocene Period. If so, Kevin Costner’s film Waterworld (’95) may experience a revival, and finally recoup its massive budget, as the world scrambles for answers of how to cope with: Water… water everywhere… everywhere water, as far as one can see!

The Solution: 100% Renewable Power

Fossil fuels, i.e., oil, natural gas, and coal, currently account for 84% of all energy consumed worldwide. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration it will take 70 years, assuming current rate-of-conversions, to replace electrical generating capacity with renewables, including hydroelectric, wind, solar, wave, geothermal, biomass, and waste. However, that “rate-of-conversions” can be dramatically accelerated.

In this regard, according to Mark Jacobson, Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University and Dr. Mark Delucchi, Institution of Transportation Studies, University of California/Davis, the U.S. Energy Information Administration timeline can be trimmed by 30-50 years. They claim the entire conversion from fossil fuels to renewables can be accomplished within one-to-two generations, or 20-40 years. “Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources,” said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, “It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will.”8

The Jacobson/Delucchi plan provides for wind (50%) and solar energy (40%) contributing 90% of electricity with 10% from other sources like hydro. The researchers envision vehicles, ships, and trains powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. Aircraft would be powered with liquid hydrogen.

The pitfall to renewable energy has always been variability of wind and solar power, but Jacobson foresees no problem. The variability problem refers to meeting requirements for the “base load,” which is the minimum amount of energy required to meet customer demand at any given hour of the day. Jacobson says this will be handled by creating a Super Grid with long-distance transmission and precise computer-generated management that is orchestrated to fill-in the gaps. Whether the gap is filled by hydro, solar, or wind, the Super Grid would make allowance for weakness in one part of the grid by accessing strength in another, or converting to hydro to pick up the slack. The point is: With modern-day computerization techniques the Super Grid can be programmed to always meet the ‘base load,’ regardless of weather conditions in any part of the country.

Jacobson and Delucchi calculated the number of wind turbines needed to implement their plan, as well as the number of solar plants, rooftop photovoltaic cells, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal and wave-energy installations. The footprint needed to power 100 percent of the world for all purposes from wind, water and solar resources is about 0.4 percent of the world’s land (mostly solar footprint) and the spacing between installations is another 0.6 percent of the world’s land for wind-turbine spacing. In total, by utilizing 1% of the world’s land, humankind will have 100% renewable, non-polluting, non-putrid air, and clean oceans forever.

“This really involves a large scale transformation… It would require an effort comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate highway system,” according to Jacobsen, which is extremely good news because the nation has already demonstrated the fortitude and ingenuity to accomplish comparable tasks, e.g., Apollo and the nationwide interstate system were both hugely successful, keeping in mind Apollo had to improvise and develop technology along the way. However, with the upcoming energy conversion, this is not a requirement. All of the technology is fully operational and ready for installation, starting tomorrow.

The question going forward is whether the political will is there to commit to converting from fossil fuels to renewables. In this regard, if the Keystone XL Pipeline is a proxy for how the public views the choice between fossil fuels and renewables, the U.S. government should go all-out, converting from fossils to renewables, starting as soon as tomorrow. A Zogby Analytics Poll, as of Nov. 15, 2012, shows that, among all voters surveyed across party lines, renewables received twice the support as fossil fuels.

Also, in states where the XL Pipeline played a prominent role in the November election, the anti-pipeline candidates swamped the pro-pipeline candidates. For example, in Florida Senator Bill Nelson was repeatedly attacked by his opponent for opposing the Keystone Pipeline. The Nelson race was considered a “showdown on Keystone,” and he won in a blowout.

In fact, all the senators who opposed the Keystone Pipeline won their races this past November.

Sixty-five percent (65%) of respondents for the Zogby Poll said the political leaders must act now in order to address future climate problems.

The public will for conversion from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewables is solid, and the technology is available. The only missing component is political leadership. Why?

  1. Roland Huntford, The Last Place on Earth (Scott and Amundsen’s Race to the South Pole), p. 473 Random House, Inc. 1999. []
  2. European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica “EPICA,” Environment News, March 14, 2002. []
  3. Richard A. Kerr, Experts Agree Global Warming Melting the World Rapidly, Science, Nov. 30, 2012. []
  4. Miguel Llanos, Environment and Weather Editor, NBC News, Nov. 29, 2012 Antarctica, Greenland Ice Definitely Melting into Sea, and Speeding up, Experts Warn taken from a study published in Science. []
  5. Antarctic Ice-Sheet Loss Driven by Basal Melting of Ice Shelves, H.D. Pritchard et al., Nature, April 26, 2012. []
  6. John Cook, Is Antarctica Losing or Gaining Ice? Skeptical Science, May 2012. [] []
  7. Alan Buis et al. []
  8. The World Can be Powered by Alternative Energy, Using Today’s Technology, in 20-40 years, Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University News, Jan. 26, 2011. []
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. He can be contacted at: Read other articles by Robert.