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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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Greenland’s icecap losing stability

Greenland's massive ice sheet is melting faster than expected, contributing to rising sea levels.

Greenland’s massive ice sheet is melting faster than expected, contributing to rising sea levels.

Catching  up on the last few weeks of icy news after a spring holiday, my eye was caught by an item by Tim Radford from the Climate News Network, dated April 13th. I quote: “Greenland is losing ice from part of its territory at an accelerating rate, suggesting that the edges of the entire ice cap may be unstable”. This caught my attention not just because anything relating to Greenland tends to do that, but because the development could have major significance for the future world climate and sea level- and because it doesn’t seem to have made its way into the mainstream media at a time when sensitivity to the issue should have been high after the IPCC report.

The Greenland ice sheet is the largest terrestrial ice mass in the northern hemisphere. Radford draws attention to a study in Nature Climate Change by Shfaqat Khan from the Technical University of Denmark and colleagues, which indicates that the ice sheet could be melting faster than previously thought. This would mean Greenland’s contribution to sea level rise has been under-estimated (once again!), and oceanographers may need to think again about their projections.

The scientists used more than 30 years of surface elevation measurements of the entire ice sheet to discover that overall loss is accelerating. Previous studies had identified melting of glaciers in the island’s south-east and north-west, but the assumption had been that the ice sheet to the north-east was stable, Radford writes:

“It was stable, at least until about 2003. Then higher air temperatures set up the process of so-called dynamic thinning. Ice sheets melt every Arctic summer, under the impact of extended sunshine, but the slush on the glaciers tends to freeze again with the return of the cold and the dark, and since under historic conditions glaciers move at the proverbial glacial pace, the loss of ice is normally very slow.”

The Sermeq Kujualleq glacier discharges icebergs into the sea (I. Quaile, Ilulissat 2009)

The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier discharges icebergs into the sea (I. Quaile, Ilulissat 2009)

But with global warming, Greenland’s southerly glaciers have been in retreat and one of them, Jakobshavn Isbrae or Sermeq Kujalleq, is now flowing four times faster than it did in 1997. I first reported on this during a trip to Greenland in 2010, and have presented various new studies on it here on the Ice Blog since.
The new research by the Danish-led team considers changes linked to the 600 kilometre-long Zachariae ice stream in the north-east, using satellite measurements. It has retreated by some 20 kilometres in the last DECADE, whereas Sermeq Kujalleq has retreated about 35 kms in 150 years. The Zachariae stream drains around one-sixth of the Greenland ice sheet, and because warmer summers have meant significantly less sea ice in recent years, icebergs have more easily broken off and floated away, which means that the ice stream can move faster. “North-east Greenland is very cold. It used to be considered the last stable part of the Greenland ice sheet,” said one of the team, Michael Bevis of Ohio State University in the US, in an interview with the Climate News Network.

“This study shows that ice loss in the north-east is now accelerating. So now it seems that all of the margins of the Greenland ice sheet are unstable.”

The scientists used a GPS network to calculate the loss of ice. Glacial ice presses down on the bedrock below it: when the ice melts, the bedrock rises in response to the drop in pressure, and sophisticated satellite measurements help scientists put a figure on the loss of ice. They calculate that between April 2003 and April 2012, the region was losing ice at the rate of 10 billion tons a year.

“This implies that changes at the margin can affect the mass balance deep in the centre of the ice sheet,” said Dr Khan. Sea levels are creeping up at the rate of 3.2 mm a year. Until now, Greenland had been thought to contribute about half a mm. The real figure may be significantly higher, according to the report.

This is a very worrying development, but it seems to me it did not get a lot of public attention. This brings me back to the question of the discrepancy between what we know about the impacts of climate change and the widespread lack of political and consumer action. (See my article Denial or Disconnect: Why don’t we act on climate change?)

Are people sticking their heads in the sand (or melting snow)? Have we just been assured so many times that the Greenland ice sheet will never melt that we don’t sit up and take notice? Is it too far away in time and space to bother us? Are too many people giving up and resigning themselves to the fact that climate change is inevitable? Is it just so much easier to hold on to the status quo instead of having to make changes to our 21st century lifestyles?

 

Greenland ice wall

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

Date

April 22, 2014 | 2:38 pm

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First World Wildlife Day and the Arctic

Maybe like me you were not aware that up to now there had been NO World Wildlife Day. Sometimes I have the feeling every day on the calendar must have been designated the day of several different causes. In fact, the UN only decided in 2013 that March 3rd 2014 should be the first World Wildlife Day. As I have commented on similar occasions here on the Ice Blog, the danger of these “international day of whatever” events is that the inflation can actually detract attention. Nevertheless, these designated days can be an opportunity to focus on particular topics. World Wildlife Day is a fine chance to remind ourselves once again of the need to protect biodiversity, especially in such a key region as the Arctic, which is being affected so drastically by climate change.

Polar Bear on melting sea ice, Russian Arctic. Foto courtesy of Peter Prokosch and UNEP/Grid Arendal

Polar Bear on melting sea ice, Russian Arctic. Photo Peter Prokosch/UNEP/Grid Arendal

The Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), a UN body with its headquarters in Bonn, plays a key role in wildlife protection. Given that animals do not recognize human-designated national borders, wildlife protection has to involve international cooperation, which is what CMS does.  Bradnee Chambers is the Executive Secretary of CMS.  He gave me this message for the Ice Blog on World Wildlife Day, focusing on that most famous of all Arctic creatures, the polar bear :

“The Arctic is extremely fragile and changes to its ecosystem from climate change will have irreversible consequences on migratory species such as the polar bear. We must stabilize global green gas emissions before the polar bear literally loses the very ice beneath its feet.” I can only wholeheartedly agree. And what is true of the polar bear, is true of so many other species.  Let me quote at length from an article Bradnee Chambers has written:

“The largest terrestrial predator on Earth is losing the ground under its feet. Polar bears used to dominate the expanse and loneliness of the Arctic, which can seem unaffected by human presence so far. However, appearances deceive. The polar bear is now a symbol if the many species whose survival is at risk because of the effects of climate change and pollution.

The antics of  Knut the polar bear cub in the Berlin Zoo touched the hearts of the German public and won him fans all over the world. The polar bear might look cute and cuddly, making it a perfect icon for Coca-Cola and many other organizations that wish to use its iconic recognition value to promote their cause or product. It is, in fact, a ferocious predator that spends much of each year on the sea ice hunting and, in the process, covers distances of up to 620 miles (1,000 kilometers). But the polar bear is also a vulnerable species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List — one that requires constant attention and sound conservation management humanity is to ensure the polar bear’s existence for future generations.

There have long been concerted, international efforts to conserve the polar bear, and the Polar Bear Agreement meeting in Moscow in December 2013 celebrated 40 years of collaboration among the five nations where polar bears exist — namely Canada, Greenland (an autonomous community that is part of Denmark), Norway, the Russian Federation and the United States. The meeting attendees agreed on a declaration promising to beef up the monitoring of these animals and the assessment of their status, and to commit to working toward developing a polar bear action plan for the next meeting of these countries in two years’ time.

Nevertheless, these countries admitted in 2009 that climate change was the main threat that needed to be tackled. Early indications from that time were that the individual conservation efforts of the five countries were beginning to bear fruit, with most polar-bear populations at least stable — with a total of 20,000 to 25,000 individuals in the wild. But all of these hard-won advances could easily be lost if Arctic ice continues to diminish.

The Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) and its Scientific Council have been examining the effects of climate change on migration for years and, in 2011, passed an unequivocal resolution — “Migratory Species Conservation in the Light of Climate Change” — identifying the polar bear as one of the species most threatened by climate change. (…)

Climate change, which is leading to reduced ice cover and the thawing of permafrost, is not the only factor having detrimental effects on polar bears. Increased economic activities, such as oil and gas exploration and exploitation, and shipping, are also taking their toll. As apex predators, polar bears are vulnerable to environmental pollutants, and post-mortems have shown dangerous levels of mercury and other toxins in the animals. These pollutants even affect newborn cubs, which ingest the poisons in their mothers’ milk. Governments have to strike a fine balance: How are they to protect a fragile environment and forsake economic opportunities while exploiting much needed natural resources and creating jobs and wealth? The choices made often make the prospects for the polar bears bleaker, with fewer places for them to hunt and build dens in which to raise their young. The CMS is a global treaty whose parties have committed to working together to conserve the hundreds of species listed on its appendices. These range from the blue whale to the monarch butterfly to gorillas, whose territories straddle the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda, and the arctic tern, which covers hundreds of thousands of kilometers in a lifetime in its pole-to-pole migrations. As a worldwide convention, CMS has the breadth to deal with species such as the polar bear in the context of climate change, adding a global perspective to conservation policies. The convention is used to dealing with multiple threats — such as pollution, climate change and environmental degradation — and it is recognized as the Convention on Biological Diversity’s lead partner on the conservation and sustainable use of migratory species. It has a catalog of more than 30 years’ worth of wide-ranging policies and a track record of fostering international cooperation.

At the International Forum on the Conservation of Polar Bears — which was held in December and attracted high-level participation, including from Russian Environment Minister Sergei Donskoi and his Canadian counterpart, Leona Aglukkaq — delegates were confronted with a disturbing prediction: The polar-bear population could fall by as much as two-thirds by 2050. Nations need to take action now, and the bears need all the friends they can get. CMS is ready to play its part if its parties agree to include the polar bear under its appendices.”

Bradnee Chambers’ article is available in full on LiveScience.

In a video message to mark World Wildlife Day, UNEP chief Achim Steiner says wildlife is too often thought of as a threat to development. He stresses that it is not just the big iconic animals we need to worry about. He stresses how biodiversity is essential to support life on earth. This biodiversity is under threat from climate change and pollution all round the globe – and especially in the rapidly changing and developing Arctic.

 

Date

February 27, 2014 | 12:27 pm

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Why melting Arctic ice leaves us cold!

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

… And the ice just keeps on melting…. (Pic: I. Quaile, Greenland)

Since I attended a workshop on “Creating a Climate for Change” in Tromso in January, I have been thinking a lot about the psychological reasons why things are not moving forward on climate change. Although scientific knowledge is growing all the time,  public perception of the need for action has not kept pace. Even in regions of the Arctic where climate change is very visible, a lot of people seem to be unwilling to take it on board. Of course there are people who will benefit to some extent. But the danger of a warming world for future generations and the environment is hard to avoid. Yet there is what you could all collective inaction.  Is it all in the mind? I touched on this briefly in a post from Tromso, but feel it is important enough to come back to in some more detail here.

In connection with climate change, the word “denial” is highly emotionally charged. Her book entitled “Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life” brought American sociologist Kari Norgaard storms of hate mail from right-wing climate skeptics. Yet the academic from the University of Oregon is not concerned with this minority group.

“I think it is a very disingenuous debate that has been manufactured by political interests who stand to lose as the economy shifts away from fossil fuels. What they’re doing is trying to make it sound like there is a debate – but actually there is no debate”, Kari told me in an interview. What she wants to understand is why the vast majority of people who do not dispute the existence of human-induced climate change still fail to translate that knowledge into action in their own lives.

“How is it possible that we have so much knowledge about the urgency of climate change, yet when you look around, it seems that either nobody knows or nobody cares?”. Norgaard sees an “incredible disconnect between the moral, social and environmental crisis of climate change and the lack of a widespread sense of a need for urgent action.” Humans, says Norgaard, are “not getting it” and “carrying on regardless”.

Refusing to accept the obvious?

The American researcher spent ten months studying a community in northern Norway, a country where media literacy, political participation and climate awareness are high. The winter she spent there was unusually warm and the snow came two months later than usual, causing problems for the community’s two main revenue sources farming and tourism. Yet Norgaard observed that the phenomenon of climate change was “invisible in social or political life”. Although stories in the media linked the warm winter explicitly to global warming, residents did not react by contacting politicians or cutting down on fossil fuels. Norgaard attributes this lack of response to what she calls “socially organized denial”: although people are informed about the findings of climate science, this knowledge remains disconnected from political, social, and private life. She sees this as symbolic of how citizens of wealthier, industrialized countries are responding to global warming. In her home county the USA, regions are already experiencing climate impacts with economic consequences. Yet people do not want to accept that it could have something to do with their lifestyle and require unpleasant action.

Climate Change Ambassador in bikini in melting ice, Alaska

Lifestyle and melting ice? (Pic I.Quaile, Alaska 2008)

“People have a real fear about what it means for the world and their future. Then a sense of guilt comes up because they realize that our high quality of life through our use of fossil fuels is directly linked to this problem. Then there is a sense of helplessness, because it feels so large and we see the lack of political response.”

People prefer, it seems, to live as though they did not have the worrying evidence of climate change. Norgaard compares this behaviour to people’s ignoring the holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bomb during World War II: She thinks we are trying to protect ourselves by avoiding unpleasant facts and the need to do something about them.

The greatest communication failure of all time?

Per Espen Stoknes is a psychologist at the Center for Climate Strategy of the Norwegian Business Institute NBI. He says the communication of climate science has failed to take account of psychological defence mechanisms of the sort Norgaard describes. “For a long time it was hoped that just the facts would be sufficient. But there are psychological barriers which stop people taking to heart what climate science is telling us, and these have been underestimated”, he told me in an interview.

Stoknes says people perceive climate change as something distant, in time and place. An IPCC (intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) forecast for 2100 seems a long way away. Melting sea ice or sea level rise in places like Bangladesh or the Maldives seem geographically very remote.

Paradoxically, the better the facts on climate change become, the less people seem to care. Stoknes quotes surveys going back to 1989 in Norway which show a decrease in people’s concern about the greenhouse effect and climate change.”Only four in ten now see it as a problem”.

Another interesting statistic Stoknes quotes shows the public has the impression only 55 percent of climate scientists agree on global warming. In reality, the figure is 97%.Getting the message about climate change across is the “greatest communication failure of all time”, says Stoknes. He says scientists need to lecture people less and engage more in dialogue and discussion. Media coverage also plays a role: “We know about 85 percent of all the media reports about climate have been framed as doom and disaster. We know this gives people an aversion and leads to avoidance behaviour. We stop wanting to hear about the issue”.

This would appear to fit with a downward slide in climate coverage around the globe, says Elisabeth Eide from the University of Bergen, author of various works on climate change in the media. She refers to “climate fatigue” in society at large and in journalists in particular.

How to motivate people to combat climate change?

 If these researchers are correct and the lack of climate action is mainly psychologically motivated, the problem requires psychological solutions. Stoknes says we have to cross the “doom and disaster barrier” and point the way forward. Norgaard too argues for more positive examples and indications of what we could do to change things.”.

Psychologist Stoknes stresses the power of social norms to change behaviour: He suggests campaigns that make people compete with their peers – neighbours, other towns, friends, relatives, at being climate-conscious. He reports the success of an app where people can record and compare how much energy they have used. Another possibility is to make “greener” options the default in all aspects of daily life. “If the normal way a printer works is to use both sides of the paper, for instance, people will do that. Not if they have to change a setting” says Stoknes. A mind-shift away from portraying climate change as a paralysing threat towards stressing practical behaviour that would change the situation could avoid triggering what the experts call “the emotional need for denial”. Any thoughts on that?

Date

February 21, 2014 | 2:28 pm

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Greenland glacier at record speed

Ilulissat 2009

Sermeq Kujalleq glacier at Ilulissat (2009) (I.Quaile)

I have been working on a story about whether the Arctic infrastructure would be able to cope with a shipping or oil spill accident, which is increasingly likely to occur as development speeds ahead. During the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromso, I attended an interesting workshop on the topic, where the organisers, the Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, came to what their experts describe as “worrisome” conclusions. Malte Humpert, Kathrin Keil and Marc Jacobsen presented three incident scenarios involving shipping and oil exploration in the Arctic. Jacobsen’s scenario involved a giant cruise boat with 3000 people on board hitting an iceberg off the West Greenland Coast, near Ilulissat.

In 2009 I was in Ilulissat, working on radio features on climate change in Greenland. This is the Greenland of the tourist brochures, with a constantly changing panorama of icebergs floating past your hotel window – or porthole if you are on a ship. While I was there, the fragility of that beautiful glacier ice was brought home to me.

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

Icebergs off the coast of Ilulissat (I.Quaile)

The Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, also still known by its Danish name “Jakobshavn Isbrae”, is the fastest flowing glacier in Greenland (or Antarctica, these two major ice sources being of key importance to global sea level). The icebergs which create the spectacle floating past the brightly coloured houses of Ilulissat, are breaking off from the glacier. Beautiful to look at, extremely worrying if you think about the background. Back in 2009, scientists were already telling me the glacier was speeding up. Now the latest research published in The Cryosphere (the journal of the European Geosciences Union) confirms that the summer flow of the ice mass has reached a record speed. The scientists, from the University of Washington in Seattle and the German Aerospace Center DLR, say the speeding up in 2013 was 30 to 50 percent higher than previous summers. The scientists analysed satellite images taken every 11 days from early 2009 to spring 2013. Satellite technology plays a key role in observing the ice. Two German radar satellites TerraSAR-X und TanDEM-X provide high resolution data that facilitates precise calculations, according to DLR. One of the authors, Dana Floricioiu from the DLR Earth Observation Center in Oberpfaffenhofen, told journalists it had been striking to see how much the glacier was changing within a very short time.

The researchers found that the glacier’s average speed peaked at 46 metres per day during the summer of 2012. This is the fastest ever recorded for a glacier in Greenland or Antarctica. The big surges take place in summer, but the researchers say the average annual speed of the glacier over the last two years is almost three times what was measured in the 1990s. It is retreating by around 17 kilometres per year. The scientists say these speeds were achieved “as the glacier terminus appears to have retreated to the bottom of an over-deepened basin with a depth of around 1300 m below sea level. The terminus is likely to reach the deepest section of the trough within a few decades, after which it could rapidly retreat to the shallower regions some  50 km farther upstream, potentially by the end of this century”.

The huge volume of ice going into the sea from the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier is already influencing sea level. The glacier drains around 6 percent of the massive Greenland ice sheet Scientists estimate it added about 1 millimetre to global sea levels from 2000 to 2010. The increased speed of the discharge will exacerbate this further.Badnews for people in low-lying coastal areas around the globe. And this is not the only Greenland glacier melting increasingly.

Summer night in Ilulissat

Summer night in Ilulissat

Coming back to the subject of disaster-preparedness – this glacier is thought to be the source of the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. The Arctic Institute’s scenario indicates that an accident like the “Costa Concordia”, which happened in an easily accessible region with no ice or dangerous weather conditions, would have devastating consequences if it happened, say, off the coast of Ilulissat. Search and rescue, accommodation and medical treatment, lack of transport facilities, poor communications infrastructure, no adequate oil spill response technology for icy waters…. food for thought for companies looking to profit from the changing climate of the Arctic – and the governments that should be responsible for protecting humans, wildlife and that beautiful but fragile Arctic ecosystem.

Photo gallery: Greenland the Ice Island

Date

February 6, 2014 | 12:43 pm

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