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Polar Ice at UN Bonn Climate Talks

... And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile, Greenland)

… And the ice continues to melt. (Pic: I. Quaile)

The delegates to the UN climate meeting currently taking place here in Bonn are receiving an urgent appeal from polar scientists to cut emissions to slow polar ice melt and give low-lying coastal regions more time to adapt to rising sea levels.

I was very interested to hear about a side-event being held here this evening, at which the authors of this year’s key studies on developments in the Antarctic will be explaining the connections between melting polar ice and climate change impacts like rising seas, affecting regions as diverse as small island states, Bangladesh or Florida in the USA.

I interviewed Anders Levermann from PIK, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impacts Research and Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, both in Bonn for the event.

The ICCI decided to bring the cryosphere into the Bonn talks to sensitize delegates to the dramatic developments in the Antarctic in particular, says Pearson. Ice Blog readers (and I was so delighted to hear Pam herself is one!) will remember posts earlier this year on melting in the East and West Antarctic. I also covered these in articles for DW. The shocking thing is that the Antarctic, even East Antarctica, which was until relatively recently considered so cold it had to be safe from global warming, is already being affected by climate change. The papers on the West Antarctic even described the melt trend as “irreversible”.

We have entered an era of irreversible climate change”.

Today, Anders Levermann, author of the East Antarctic paper and one of the world’s leading Antarctic researchers, told me “we have entered a new era of climate change, witnessed the tipping of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and this is irreversible”.

That should really shock people into action, you would think. But climate negotiations are moving, as one of the experts said to me at the meeting “at a glacial pace”. As we can see in Antarctica, though, and Greenland and other regions, those glaciers are speeding up. Maybe there is hope for the climate talks yet!

The announcements by the USA and China on possible emissions cuts have brought a new “buzz” to the Bonn conference. The fact that the key emitters could finally be getting the message and preparing to move, with the impacts of climate change hitting their own countries, has to be a positive signal. Pearson confirmed to me that people in the sunshine state of Florida, where she lives, had become more aware of the importance of melting ice caps with increasing floods and storms.

As Levermann says, Antarctica and Greenland have a huge potential to raise sea level further than previously anticipated. He was lead author on the IPCC report chapter on sea level rise. The latest IPCC report factored in some of the likely impacts from melting ice in these regions for the first time. Of course the latest research was not yet included. For the 21st century forecast, this will not make a lot of difference, says Levermann. But the fact that this irreversible Antarctic melt is now underway will make a big difference to coming generations.

There are those who dispute whether the warming of the ocean, which is causing the Antarctic melt (unlike the surface melt on Greenland) is man-made. Levermann does not rule out natural variation as a possible influence. But ultimately, he says, that is irrelevant. Greenhouse gas emissions and so human interference are warming the planet, and any further warming, whatever the cause, will speed up ice melt. So cutting emissions is the way to slow it down and, Pearson adds, gives people time to adapt to rising seas.

The combination of models based on the principles of physics, using a higher resolution than ever before, and evidence from ice cores showing what happened in the past, make for a high degree of certainty about these ice developments, says Levermann.

“The level of warming will determine the rate with which we discharge West Antarctica, and we can still prevent the tipping of East Antarctica”, the cryosphere experts told us here in Bonn.

That is a huge responsibility. Here’s hoping the message will make it into the hearts and minds of those negotiating the future of the earth’s climate and the governments they represent.

Date

June 13, 2014 | 2:34 pm

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Time for a “new environmentalism”?

Swiss ambassadors to Brussels Green Week

Swiss ambassadors to Brussels Green Week

What are these cuddly marmots  doing on an exhibition stand at Green Week, Europe’s biggest environment policy gathering, being held this week in the Belgian capital Brussels? They have the honour of decorating the stand of the Swiss-based World Resources Forum, not just because they look cute, a representative tells me, but because of their resources-saving, nature-friendly lifestyle. The “marmies” (I have enjoyed their antics many times while hiking in the Swiss Alps) are the hibernating, vegetarian  type. They eat enough in the short alpine summer to see them through the winter, which they spend in burrows on the hillside.

Meanwhile, we humans consume the planet’s resources at a disastrously unsustainable rate and pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate that is threatening to change the planet beyond recognition, melting polar ice, destroying much of our biodiversity, raising the sea-levels, making the oceans more acid at the same time and devastating many regions with extreme weather, storms, floods and drought.

Conference mascot Richard Rubbish has been on his feet all day.

Conference mascot Richard Rubbish needs a break

Hm. Small wonder this year’s Green Week kicked off with a high-level debate on whether we need a “new environmentalism”. James Murray, editor of the London-based online “businessGreen” magazine, who chaired the “summit”, says “environmentalism is in crisis” and green economic models are not becoming mainstream fast enough.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and environmental guru to many, said fighting climate change certainly had to become priority No.1. In this connection, he picked up on President Obama’s move to break the climate deadlock by capping coal power plant pollution through the EPA. Last time I spoke to him at a meeting in Abu Dhabi last year, he was very frustrated about his country’s stance on emissions and climate. Understandably he is delighted by the new move. We have the technology, says Sachs. These new regulations would force US states to come up with concrete plans to reduce emissions. What we need, he says, is political determination backed up by a firm plan and timetable.

UNEP chief Achim Steiner was also here in Brussels for the gathering. He told me in an interview he didn’t think we need a “new environmentalism”. The environment movement has to keep evolving to meet the challenges of the respective age, he says. And we shouldn’t do down the achievements of environment campaigners to date. He too is upbeat about the Obama administration initiative – and the possibility that China could be prepared to put a cap on its emissions. Nevertheless, even this most optimistic of UN officials has to admit we lack satisfactory answers to many of the sustainability-related challenges of our time.

Marco Lambertini, new DG of WWF International, with whom I conducted an interview when he took office, was addressing the forum for the ngo community. He told me then and repeated here that WWF is changing its campaigning style to reach the masses of people who are not “the converted”. We have to leave our comfort zone, as he puts it. And social media play a key role, he says. He talked about Earth Day and how it has turned from an ngo thing into a local community-driven mass event, thanks especially to the power of social media. He also argues for abandoning what he calls “post-colonial environmentalism”, i.e. money from the north to fund projects in the south, in favour of a more inclusive, local-to-global approach.  Only mass pressure from millions can really change the system, Lambertini argues.

Sandra Steingraber, American biologist, author, film-maker and anti-fracking campaigner went furthest in her considerations of the state of the environment movement. Reminding the forum that improvements in the US climate record were thanks to the use of environmentally irresponsible fracking, she says the world is being held hostage by the fossil fuels industry and “we need a vigorous new environment movement to engage in hostage rescue”.

Prizewinning recycled suitcase armchair by Gabriela Saykova

Circular economy, nothing wasted: Prizewinning recycled suitcase armchair by Gabriela Saykova

In a week where my attention is shifting between the debates here in Brussels on just what we need to bring about a circular economy and protect strained resources and a stressed environment, and the talks at home in Bonn aimed at a new international climate agreements, it becomes clearer than ever that the issues are completely inter-connected. The increased attention shown by my media colleagues both at DW and amongst the other stations and publications in both the Green Week and the UN talks in Bonn makes me feel optimistic, on the one hand. Environment and climate have come into the mainstream. On the other hand, that demonstrates how seriously they are under threat.

Please see also my DW article on Green Week, the UN climate talks and environmentalism and my interview with Germanwatch political director Christoph Bals on the prospects for those Bonn climate talks.

Date

June 4, 2014 | 8:11 pm

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Keeping Greenland in focus

Greenland ice wall

The Greenland ice sheet, photographed 2009 (I.Quaile)

Two interesting publications relating to Greenland caught my eye over the past few days. But it has not proved easy to get them onto the international news agenda. Given the huge importance of the Greenland ice sheet to the planet’s future, this is frustrating to say the least. Fortunately there is the Ice Blog.

The first research relates to a study about the role of ash from fires in bringing about large-scale surface melting. The other predicts Greenland will be a far greater contributor to sea rise than expected.

Let me start with the latter, published in Nature Geoscience. Scientists from the University of California – Irvine and NASA glaciologists have found previously uncharted long deep valleys under the Greenland Ice Sheet. Since these bedrock canyons are well below sea level, they are much more vulnerable to warm ocean waters than previously thought. When warmer Atlantic water hits the fronts of hundreds of glaciers, the edges will erode much further than previously assumed, releasing far greater amounts of water.

Ice melt from the subcontinent has already accelerated, as warmer marine currents have migrated north, the authors say. Older models predicted that once higher ground was reached in a few years, the ocean-induced melting would halt. Greenland’s frozen mass would stop shrinking, and its effect on higher sea waters would be curtailed.

“That turns out to be incorrect. The glaciers of Greenland are likely to retreat faster and farther inland than anticipated – and for much longer – according to this very different topography we’ve discovered beneath the ice,” says lead author Mathieu Morlighem, a UC Irvine associate project scientist, on the university website. “This has major implications, because the glacier melt will contribute much more to rising seas around the globe.”

IMG_1172

Icebergs from a Greenland glacier melt on.. (I.Quaile)

To obtain the results, Morlighem developed what he says is a breakthrough method that for the first time offers a comprehensive view of Greenland’s entire periphery. It’s nearly impossible to accurately survey at ground level the subcontinent’s rugged, rocky subsurface, which descends as much as 3 miles beneath the thick ice cap.

Since the 1970s, limited ice thickness data has been collected via radar pinging of the boundary between the ice and the bedrock. Along the coastline, though, rough surface ice and pockets of water cluttered the radar sounding, so large swaths of the bed remained invisible.

Measurements of Greenland’s topography have tripled since 2009, thanks to NASA Operation IceBridge flights. But Morlighem says he quickly realized that while that data provided a fuller picture than the earlier radar readings, there were still major gaps between the flight lines.

To reveal the full subterranean landscape, he designed a novel “mass conservation algorithm” that combined the previous ice thickness measurements with information on the velocity and direction of its movement and estimates of snowfall and surface melt.

The difference was dramatic, says Morlighem. What appeared to be shallow glaciers at the very edges of Greenland are actually long, deep fingers stretching more than 100 kilometers (almost 65 miles) inland.

“We anticipate that these results will have a profound and transforming impact on computer models of ice sheet evolution in Greenland in a warming climate,” the researchers conclude.

“Operation IceBridge vastly improved our knowledge of bed topography beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet,” said co-author Eric Rignot of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “This new study takes a quantum leap at filling the remaining, critical data gaps on the map.”

Other co-authors are Jeremie Mouginot of UC Irvine and Helene Seroussi and Eric Larour of JPL. Funding was provided by NASA.

This is the same team that reported on accelerated glacial melt in West Antarctica, as discussed in an earlier Ice Blog post.  Together, the papers “suggest that the globe’s ice sheets will contribute far more to sea level rise than current projections show,” Rignot said.

Indeed. These scientists are telling us the IPCC forecasts were way too low. This could have huge consequences for coastal communities all around the globe.

Unfortunately, a lot of people (even those you would expect to know better) tend to mix up “Arctic” and “Antarctic”. It all goes into the category of “melting ice”, and they think they have heard it all before. What they still don’t realize is that this is something that concerns us all, and that these two polar areas are of huge significance to the world climate as a whole and global sea level. When those two Antarctic studies were released, there was a flurry of news coverage. The challenge for us journalists is how to follow this up and stop the attention curve from dropping.

Plodding on... (I.Quaile)

Plodding on… (I.Quaile)

The other interesting piece of recent Greenland research was conducted by the Dartmouth College Thayer School of Engineering and the Desert Research Institute and reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of

Sciences. It concludes that ash from Northern hemisphere forest fires combined with rising temperatures to cause large-scale surface melting of the Greenland ice sheet in 1889 and 2012.

The researchers say their findings contradict conventional thinking that the melting was driven by warming alone.

The findings suggest that continued climate change will result in nearly annual widespread melting of the ice sheet’s surface by the year 2100.

Melting in the dry snow region does not contribute to sea level rise, but when the meltwater percolates into the snowpack and refreezes, the surface is less reflective. This reduces the albedo.

Let me give the (almost) last word to the study’s lead author Kaitlin Keegan.

“With both the frequency of forest fires and warmer temperatures predicted to increase with climate change, widespread melt events are likely to happen much more frequently in the future”.

It figures.

 

Date

May 23, 2014 | 2:39 pm

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Ukraine’s shadow on Arctic cooperation

 

Ilulissat

Ice in shadow on an Arctic summer night (I.Quaile)

When a meeting of the Senior Arctic Officials of the Arctic Council scheduled to take place in Canada in June was cancelled, one couldn’t help assuming the political standoff between Russia, on the one side, and the US and other European partners on the other over Ukraine must have played a role. The Arctic Council Secretariat, based in Tromsoe in Norway, was keen to play down any political implications. In response to my inquiry, I was told the meeting had been rescheduled in form of teleconferences and written exchanges, and various meetings of Council working groups and task forces were going ahead in the coming weeks in Canada and in other Arctic Council member states. Business as usual? When Canada, which currently holds the chair of the Arctic Council, boycotted a working meeting of the organization planned for April in Moscow, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq called it a “principled stand” against Russian actions in Ukraine.

On other levels, the political repercussions of the Ukraine crisis for the Arctic are undisputed. A statement from the US State Department reads:

“Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, the US government has taken a number of actions, to include curtailing official government-to-government contacts and meetings with the Russian Federation on a case-by-case basis”.

And that includes Arctic-related events. In Alaska Dispatch, Yereth Rosen reports the withdrawal of State Department funding for a hazard-reduction workshop planned for June between Russian scientists and their US counterparts. He also notes the head of Russia’s emergency services failed to show up at an international meeting in the US state last month.

With the West looking to broaden sanctions against Russia because of the Ukraine dispute, relations between the two factions are bound to be strained in a region where climate change has set off a highly competitive race for oil, gas and other resources.

Defending Arctic interests

While careful to secure their own business interests, the USA plans to block exports of oil and gas technology for new projects run by Russian state-controlled companies, if the Kremlin interferes with the Presidential elections planned to take place in Ukraine on May 25th.

“Depriving Rosneft and Gazprom of the most modern technology would be a significant setback for their ambitions in the areas that are the future of the Russian industry, including the Arctic”, writes Ed Crooks in the Financial Times of May 14th.

Well before the annexation of Crimea, Moscow made no bones about its intention to defend its energy and other economic interests in the Arctic region. President Putin has made it a strategic priority, re-establishing Soviet airfields and ports and preparing a strategic military command to be set up in the Russian Arctic by the end of this year.

Melting ice, easier access, disputed claims (I.Quaile)

Melting ice, easier access, disputed claims (I.Quaile)

Territorial claims

Russia, the only non-NATO coastal Arctic state, holds more Arctic territory than any of the other seven Arctic nations. It also lays claim before the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf to an extension of its own shelf, including the huge seabed area of the Lomonosov Ridge. Other countries that have claims on the Arctic seabed include Canada, Denmark,  Norway, and the United States.

In March this year, the Commission approved Russia’s longstanding claim to 52,000 square kilometers of seabed in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Pacific Ocean, believed to be rich in oil and gas. At the time, the Russian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Sergey Donskoy told journalists the UN decision was also “the first step in our Arctic applications, which will be ready in the near future.”

The Times Moscow correspondent Ben Hoyle responded with the headline “Russia’s legal land grab is dress rehearsal for Arctic showdown”.

A matter for NATO?

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year called for the USA and Canada to take up a united stand in response to Moscow’s military build-up in the Arctic .

According to the TTU online newsletter on defense and strategy, pressure is mounting on the Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to abandon opposition to making the Arctic a part of NATO’s official agenda.

Harper would prefer to see the bilateral North American Aerospace Defense Command NORAD extended to forces on land and on sea. The defense experts say the Harper administration is at the same time using the Ukrainian conflict to re-gain geostrategic influence at a time where Russia is building up a strong maritime position in the Arctic.

The defense publication quotes international political risk research consultancy Polarisk Analytics however as saying extending NORAD’S powers would mean keeping up the old block mentality. That would not guarantee sufficient stability to attract private western investment in the Arctic.

Including the Arctic in NATO’s official agenda would provoke a counterproductive escalation, which could have a lasting destabilizing effect on Arctic cooperation and lead to confrontations, says Polarisk. They suggest the debate should be conducted within the Arctic Council. But so far, that has remained outside its mandate, focusing instead on environmental protection and health and safety.

Professor Lawson Brigham of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, former chairman of Arctic Council’s Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, told Alaska Dispatch “There are enough environmental issues and enough people issues to keep us busy and keep us together”.

He said he hoped tensions would ease enough and US leaders would be “diplomatically adroit enough to pull off one of the goals articulated in White House recent Arctic Strategy implementation plan:  a 2016 “Presidential Arctic Summit”, attended by heads of Arctic nations to mark the Arctic Council’s 20th anniversary.

First, let’s see how the next Arctic Council SAO meeting in Yellowknife, Canada this autumn works out. Given that the chair of the Council goes to the USA in 2015, it seems unlikely that the long shadow of the ongoing Ukrainian conflict will become shorter any time soon.

 

 

 

Date

May 19, 2014 | 10:32 am

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Cryosphere in Crisis?

Melting...

Melting…

You can’t  say the latest research results on the thinning of the West Antarctic ice sheet didn’t make the media. From the news agencies through the quality media and even publications not known for their detailed science or environment coverage – nearly all reported that two separate studies each independently come to the conclusion that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet are already “collapsing”. They say this could result in a considerable sea level rise within the next century or two. This would have devastating consequences for low-lying coastal areas around the globe.

No-one can really say they didn’t know about this. For once, the Antarctic ice has made into the headlines of the mainstream media. This is the region people tend to think of as having “eternal ice”, where global warming will “not make much difference”. There are those who criticize the media for sensationalism or exaggeration by taking over the term “collapse” for a process which will still take hundreds to thousands of years. See for example Andrew Revkin’s post on Dot Earth (New York Times), (and an excellent response by Tom Yulsman in ImaGeo: (Discover Magazine). But, semantic discussions apart – as Yulsman puts it:

“On a human timescale, 200 years or more for the start of rapid disintegration is a very long time indeed. But on a geologic timescale, it is the blink of an eye. And that’s important to keep in mind too — that in a blazing flash, geologically speaking, we humans are managing to remake the life support systems of our entire planet. This is why I think today’s news may eventually be seen as having historic significance”. At any rate, he concludes “it is yet another clear sign that human-caused changes to the planet once regarded as theoretical are now very real”.

Indeed Tom. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Has it set the alarm bells ringing? Did anybody see a rash of reactions promising quick action on reducing emissions to mitigate climate change? If so, please point me in the right direction. So far, I haven’t seen any indication of anything other than business as usual.

P1010041

The West Antarctic ice sheet contains so much ice that it would raise global sea level by three to four meters if it melted completely. As it sits on bedrock that is below sea level, it is considered particularly vulnerable to warming sea water. Until now, scientists assumed it would take thousands of years for the ice sheet to collapse completely. The two new studies indicate that could happen much faster – as early as 200 years from now or, at the most, 900. Both research teams, using different methods and looking at different parts of the ice sheet, conclude that the trend is probably unstoppable.

The NASA study published in “Geophysical Research Letters” uses data from satellites, planes, ships and measurements from the shelf ice to examine six large glaciers in the Amundsen Sea over the last 20 years. The second report, from the University of Washington published in the journal “Science,” uses computer models to study the Thwaites glacier. It is considered of particular importance because it acts as a type of “lynch pin”, holding back the rest of the ice sheet.

According to NASA researcher Eric Rignot, the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica have “passed the point of no return.” He told journalists this would mean a sea level rise of at least  1.2 meters (3.93 feet) within the next 200 years.The University of Washington scientists worked out, using topographical maps, computer simulations and airborne radar, that the Thwaites glacier is also in an early stage of collapse. They expect it to disappear within several hundred years. That would raise sea levels by around 60 centimeters (23.62 inches). The NASA study showed that sea level rises of 1.2 meters are possible

The good news, according to author Ian Joughlin, is that while the word “collapse” implies a sudden change, the fastest scenario is 200 years, and the longest more than 1,000 years. The bad news, he adds, is that such a collapse may be inevitable: “Previously, when we saw thinning we didn’t necessarily know whether the glacier could slow down later, spontaneously or through some feedback,” Joughlin says. “In our model simulations it looks like all the feedbacks tend to point toward it actually accelerating over time. There’s no real stabilizing mechanism we can see.”

The latest IPCC report does not adequately factor ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet into its projections for global sea level rise, on account of a lack of data. These “will almost certainly be revised upwards,” according to Sridar Anandakrishnan from Pennsylvania State University at the presentation of the University of Washington study. The scientist was not involved in the research.

NASA glaciologist Rignot said he was taken aback by the speed of the changes. “We feel this is at the point where … the system is in a sort of chain reaction that is unstoppable,” he said.

Rignot also makes the key point that this development tells us not only about the area down at the South Pole, but about the whole climate system: “This system, whether Greenland or Antarctica, is changing on a faster time scale than we anticipated. We are discovering that every day.”

My last two blog posts have been about melting of the Greenland ice sheet and melting even in the East Antarctic, which is usually cited as the last bastion against ice-destroying climate change. We are subjecting our cryosphere to huge pressures and have set a “snowball” rolling, which is picking up momentum and will ultimately carry masses of ice into a rising ocean.

Rignot says even drastic measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions could not prevent the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet. That is a terribly depressing thought.  I would like to think this will prove wrong. But if there is any chance to avert that disaster and preserve our polar ice for thousands of years rather than just a few hundred, surely the time for action is now?

 

 

Date

May 14, 2014 | 2:46 pm

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