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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.

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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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Greenland melt natural or man-made?

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Greenland ice sheet (Photo I.Quaile) – melting too fast!

And does it ultimately make any difference? Scientists from the University of Washington (UW) have published a paper in Nature estimating that up to half of the recent warming in Greenland and surrounding areas may be due to climate variations that originate in the tropical Pacific and are not connected with the overall warming of the planet. You can just hear the “I told you so”, from the climate skeptics. “Still”, the UW scientists add, “at least half the warming remains attributable to global warming caused by rising carbon dioxide emissions”.

With all due respect to the scientists who do this essential research – I repeatedly find myself wondering how we can talk about “natural” climate variations at all any more,  given that we have changed the parameters so much you could argue none of it is really without human impacts. Does natural fluctuation not act differently if you are starting from completely different base data, brought about by man-made warming through greenhouse gas emissions?

Greenland and parts of neighboring Canada have experienced some of the most extreme warming since 1979, at a rate of about 1 degree Celsius per decade, or twice the global average, the scientists say. “We need to understand why in the last 30 years global warming is not uniform”, says first author Qinghua Ding, a UW atmospheric research scientist. “Superimposed on this global average warming are some regional features that need to be explained”.

Longer enforced holidays for sled dogs? (Quaile, Greenland)

Longer enforced holidays for sled dogs? (Quaile, Greenland)

The study uses both observations and advanced computer models. It comes to the conclusion that a warmer western tropical Pacific Ocean has caused atmospheric changes over the North Atlantic that have warmed the surface by about half a degree per decade since 1970. “The pattern of the changes in the tropical Pacific that are responsible for remarkable atmospheric circulation changes and warming in Greenland and the Canadian Arctic are consistent with what we would call natural variability”, says co-author David Battisti, a UW professor of atmospheric sciences.

Of course there will always be natural variability in the course of the seasons and changing meteorological conditions.  But in many of the fastest—warming areas on earth, co—author of the new study  John “Mike” Wallace, also professor at UW, says global warming and natural variations combine to create a “perfect storm” for warming.

The scientists attribute the natural variations in their study to an “unusually warm western tropical Pacific, near Papua New Guinea. Sind the mid-1990s the water surface there has been about 0.3 degrees hotter than normal. Computer models show this affects the regional air pressure, setting off a stationary wave in the atmosphere that arcs in a great circle from the tropical Pacific toward Greenland before turning back over the Atlantic”.  Wallace says there are warm spots where the air has been pushed down, and cold spots where the air has been pulled up. And Greenland, he explains, is in one of the warm spots”.

This and other research by these scientists has documented the existence of decades-long climate variations in the Pacific Ocean which resemble the better known shorter-range El Nino variations. Other studies have indicated that waves starting in the same place in the tropical Pacific but radiating southward are warming West Antarctica and melting the Pine Island Glacier, which has been the subject here on the Ice Blog before.

The experts describe this natural variation as “unpredictable”, whereas the half of the warming in Greenland from the “forcing of climate by anthropogenic greenhouse gases” is “predictable”.

So what do we learn from all of this? One thing is clear. It does NOT change the threat to Greenland’s ice from our man-made warming: “Nothing we have found challenges the idea that globally, glaciers are reatreating, says Battisti. “Ice appears to be exquisitely sensitive to the buildup of greenhouse gases, more than we ever would have thought”, says his colleague Wallace.

Ultimately, the researchers say, natural variations could either accelerate or decelerate the melting rate of Greenland’s glaciers in coming decades. But, “in the long run, the human induced component is likely to prevail”.

So don’t let anybody use this as an excuse to talk down the need to cut emissions in a big way asap.

Date

May 7, 2014 | 4:09 pm

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Will Antarctic share Arctic’s fate?

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

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

While the Arctic is melting twice as fast as the rest of the planet, and protests continue against the race for oil at huge risk to the sensitive environment,  the icy regions around the south pole were long considered immune to climate change. But melting glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula in recent years sparked doubts in the scientific community about just how stable the western region of Antarctica really is. Earlier this year, I wrote an article on the irreversible melt of the Pine Island glacier on western Antarctica. The huge iceberg that broke off last November has been in the news again, heading for the open sea.

Only the huge icy vastness of Eastern Antarctica still appeared to be safe from the perils of a warming climate. Now experts from Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have published findings indicating that this too might no longer be the case. In a study published in “Nature Climate Change“, they write that the melting of just a small volume of ice on the East Antarctic coast could ultimately trigger a discharge of ice into the ocean which would result in unstoppable sea-level rise. They are talking about tomorrow or the next decade. Still, the prospect of more irreversible thawing in the Antarctic is a very worrying one.
“Previously, only the West Antarctic was thought to be unstable. Now we know that the eastern region, which is ten times bigger, could also be at risk”, says Anders Levermann, co-author of the study. The findings are based on computer simulations which make use of new, improved data from the ground beneath the ice sheet.PIK scientist Levermann was one of the lead authors of the sea-level section in the latest IPCC report.
“The Wilkes Basin in East Antarctic is like a bottle that is tilted”, says Matthias Mengel, lead author of the new study.”If you take out the cork, the contents will spill out”. At the moment, the “cork” is formed by a rim of ice at the coast. If that were to melt, the huge quantities of ice it holds back could shift and flow into the ocean, raising sea levels by three to four meters. Although air temperatures over Antarctica are still very low, warmer ocean currents could cause the ice along the coast to melt.

Warming oceans: Melting from below  (Photo: I.Quaile)

Warming oceans: Melting from below (Photo: I.Quaile)

So far, there are no signs of warmer water of this sort heading for the Wilkes Basin. Some simulations suggest though that the conditions necessary for the “cork” to melt could arise within the next 200 years. Even then, the scientists say it would take around 2000 years for sea level to rise by one meter.
According to the simulations, it would take 5,000 to 10,000 years for all the ice in the affected region to melt completely. “But once this has started, the discharge will continue non-stop until the whole basin is empty”, says Mengel. “This is the basic problem here. By continuing to emit more and more greenhouse gases, we could well be triggering reactions today that we will not be able to stop in the future. ” Indeed.
The IPCC report predicts a global sea-level rise of up to 16 centimeters this century. As this could already have devastating impacts on many coastal areas around the globe, any additional factor is of key importance to the calculations. “We have presumably overestimated the stability of East Antarctica”, says Levermann. Even the slightest further increase in sea level could aggravate flooding risks for coastal cities like New York, Tokyo or Mumbai.
At the moment, the largest contribution to Antarctic ice loss and rising sea levels comes from the Pine-Island glacier in West Antarctica. As I mentioned at the start, a huge iceberg, which broke off from the glacier last year, is currently floating into the open waters of the Southern Ocean. French glaciologist Gael Durand from Grenoble University told me in an interview the huge glacier had already reached a point where its continued melting is irreversible, regardless of air temperature or ocean conditions.

Date

May 5, 2014 | 2:51 pm

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Arctic oil: confrontations ahead?

 

The Russian detention of the "Arctic 30" led to international protests, as here in Bonn (I.Quaile)

The Russian detention of the “Arctic 30″ led to international protests, as here in Bonn (I.Quaile)

The first oil from the controversial Prirazlomnaya offshore Arctic oil platform is on its way to Rotterdam. This, you will remember, was the oil rig where the Greenpeace “Arctic 30” were arrested by Russian forces last September during a protest. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior III is on its way to meet the tanker, the “Mikhail Ulyanov”, and protest against Arctic oil drilling. (The Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise remains in the custody of the  Russian Investigative committee, over six months after the action and four months since an official amnesty was adopted).
This oil transport marks the first ever shipment of Arctic offshore oil. Interestingly, it has been bought by the French oil concern Total SA.  I remember the furore when the chief executive of that very company Christophe de Margerie, ruled out drilling in the Arctic in 2012 out of concern about the effect of a possible spill.  Hm. Looks like it’s OK to profit from the oil as long as somebody else takes the risk. Although I seem to remember at the time that worry about the negative impact a spill in the sensitive ecosystems of the remote Arctic would have on the image of the industry as a whole played a role in the decision.

Greenpeace Captain Peter Willcox, a member of the ‘Arctic 30’ who was imprisoned in Russia for over two months after the protest at Gazprom’s Prirazlomnaya platform in the Pechora Sea last year, is at the helm of the Rainbow Warrior III. The organization is not saying much about what form the protest will take as yet. But presumably the risks of a drastic response like last year’s Russian crack-down are minimal in the North Sea. As far as the culture of dealing with protest in the Arctic is concerned however, a recent announcement by President Putin gives little reason for optimism. On April 23rd, the Barents Observer carried a worrying report headlined “Putin arms Arctic drillers” on a meeting between Putin and his top national security aides. It says Putin highlighted the need for an enhanced security presence in Russian Arctic territories to protect oil production facilities, loading terminals and pipelines “against terrorists and other potential threats”.

The same day Putin signed amendments in a federal law on the protection of oil and gas objects and infrastructure. It gives Russian oil companies the right to establish their own protection units. The Barents Observer quotes the newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta as suggesting the companies might eventually hire “thousands of well-armed people, equipped with automatic weapons, vehicles, vessels and aircraft”, mostly former military personnel, police officers and special forces agents. Even if that proves to be slightly exaggerated: the thought of corporate armed units having the law in their own hands to squash anything that looks like opposition to Arctic development is a nightmare.

“This week’s Arctic speech from the Russian leader has a scope which goes far beyond imagined threats from potential terrorists. It also includes a major element of heightened inter-state tensions”, according to the Barents Observer. Given the current climate against the background of the ongoing Ukraine conflict, I have to share that concern. With the Russian leader stepping up the country’s military presence in the Arctic arguing that there is an “increasing conflict of interest between the Arctic coastal states” and that “the situation in the world is fraught with new risks and challenges to Russian national interests”, it is hard to be optimistic about the prospects for an Arctic future free of confrontation.

What Arctic lies ahead for the next generation? (I.Quaile)

What Arctic lies ahead for the next generation? (I.Quaile)

Date

April 28, 2014 | 2:16 pm

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Empowering Arctic Youth

Cara and Kayan - "Give me a solar-powered snow mobile and I'll use it" was the young Eskimo's quip in Barrow, Alaska.

Cara and Kayan – “Give me a solar-powered snow mobile and I’ll use it” was the young Eskimo’s quip in Barrow, Alaska,  in 2008.

Back in 2008, the Ice Blog was born when I was on a trip to Alaska reporting on the “Climate Change College”, a joint project by WWF and an ice cream company to interest young people in climate change.  Young climate ambassadors from Europe had won a trip to Arctic Alaska to find out first hand about the impacts of climate change – and to meet with young people in the region. I am still in contact with some of the ex-ambassadors, who are continuing to make contributions to climate and environment protection in their careers and everyday lives. Cara Augustenborg in this photo is a successful academic, entrepreneur and Green Party candidate in Ireland. Kayan, I wonder if you are still in Alaska and if you ever got yourself an environment-friendly means of transport?

Anyway, I have  Elías Thórsson from the Arctic Journal to thank for drawing my attention to a new youth project inside the Arctic: YAC, the Youth Arctic Coalition. It sees itself as  “Youth collaboration to address environmental, economic and social challenges and opportunities in the Arctic”. The latest edition of the Arctic Journal has a story by Elías on the group and the need to include young people in decisions on Arctic issues, headlined “Carpe Arcticum”.

Indeed, the Arctic is one of the fastest changing places on the planet. With countries as far away as China or Japan making their interest(s) plain, what happens in the Arctic today will have a huge impact to the region future generations in the High North will inherit.

Protesters capture media attention

Young Norwegian protesters wait for Norway’s premier, January 2014

During my latest visit to Arctic Norway in January, young protesters in Tromso told me of their fears about the environmental impacts of Arctic oil drilling. During visits to Alaska, I spoke to young Inupiat residents who were more concerned about jobs and hoping to continue to benefit from wealth from the oil industry. In Greenland, some of the youngsters I spoke to were torn between concern about the melting ice and changes to the lifestyle they had grown up with, and the hope that climate change might bring jobs and prosperity to their Arctic island.

The YAC, which held its inaugural conference in February, is trying to bring young people from across the Arctic together to have their say in what is happening. It is not an easy task, as Elías explains in the article. Clearly, views amongst young people will cover as wide a spectrum as those of any other generation. But they will be united in their interest in looking beyond the short-term interests which influence business and politics today.

So good luck to YAC and here’s hoping your organization will attract a lot of interest. And that it will inspire a lot of active participation to shape a sustainable future for the Arctic and represent the interests of coming generations in a region in danger of losing its identity amidst the ever-faster changes caused by a warming climate.

 

 

Date

April 25, 2014 | 3:08 pm

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