Archive for the ‘West Antarctic Ice Sheet’ Category

Deus ex Machina

April 8, 2008

I’ve been quiet for a while.  Sometimes it just gets too much and I have to step away.

The big environmental news story on MSN today is that beer drinkers might have to pay more for their brew.

I wonder how many people know that scientists were shocked to see how fast Antarctica’s Wilkens Ice sheet is breaking up.

It takes an awful lot to shock a scientist.

I wonder how many people know that “If global emissions of CO2 from human activities continue to rise on current trends then the average pH of the oceans could fall by 0.5 units (equivalent to a three fold increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions) by the year 2100. This pH is probably lower (more acidic) than has been experienced for hundreds of millennia and, critically, this rate of change is probably one hundred times greater than at any time over this period. The scale of the changes may vary regionally, which will affect the magnitude of the biological effects.” The Royal Society, Ocean Acidification Due To Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide, 2005 (my ephasis)

I wonder if people know that scientists who thought that the arctic ice cap would be ice-free by 2070 are now predicting that it’ll be ice-free by 2015?

I know that there is a growing sense of unease. But I don’t think that decreasing our use of shopping bags is going to make much of a difference. It might make people feel better, but it will not deflect the load of buckshot that has already fired and is speeding toward our collective faces.

“Deus ex Machina” is a latin phrase — “God from the machine.” In Greek theater, when all was lost, God would jump out of a box and save the day.

I’m going to school, to University, and I’m surrounded by young people every day. Eating, laughing, studying, typing away on their laptops, chatting on their cell phones, they are seemingly unconcerned by their future. They talk about their future as if the world will always be as it is right now.

And it’s certainly not just the 20-somethings. I hear 40-somethings talking about their retirement funds and whether they are saving enough to support themselves when they are in their eighties.

I look around at all of this and I wonder if any of the current world governments will survive through the end of this century. I wonder if the ocean die-off will be gradual or quick. I wonder what will happen when their is no more money left for public schools, public housing and public medical care. I wonder what will happen when we face starvation in the cities.

We aren’t saving ourselves, and the hand of God or science will not sweep away the self-inflicted death-shot flying toward us that is our future.

Sometimes I have to set it aside and think about the day — getting kids to school, making dinner, walking the dog, listening to the first birds of spring, lifting my face to the late day sun. Sometimes I have to just take a deep breath and think about my own personal plan.

I wonder how many other people, these people who are seemingly unconcerned, are like me.


Transportation: Getting Around in a Changing World

March 13, 2008

The National Academies has just released a new study: Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation . The study notes that transportation planners are still using historical data to guide their operations and investments.

“Transportation professionals should acknowledge the challenges posed by climate change and incorporate current scientific knowledge into the planning, design, construction, operation, and maintenance of transportation systems. Every mode of transportation and every region in the United States will be affected as climate change poses new and often unfamiliar challenges to infrastructure providers.”

The scientists down in Antarctica studying glacier melt note that the new IPCC report didn’t take Greenland or Antarctic glacier melt into consideration in their rising sea level projection. Studies have already come out, warning that the IPCC projection was much too conservative.

Scientists are funny people. A person has to listen closely to what they’re saying, and what they’re not saying. Scientists who are studying the West Antarctic Ice Sheet say that if it succumbs to warming, the oceans will rise from 3 to 5 meters. They talk in shocked tones about how quickly the WAIS is melting from underneath. They caution that more research needs to be done, a decade of research, and that few people have a clear understanding of the play between the Antarctic atmosphere and ocean.

The National Academies advise transportation professionals: “Climate warming over the next 50 to 100 years will be manifested by increases in very hot days and heat waves, increases in Arctic temperatures, rising sea levels coupled with storm surges and land subsidence, more frequent intense precipitation events, and increases in the intensity of strong hurricanes…

Potentially, the greatest impact of climate change on North America’s transportation system will be flooding of coastal roads, railways, transit systems, and runways because of a global rise in sea level coupled with storm surge and exacerbated in some locations by land subsidence. The vulnerability of transportation infrastructure to climate change, however, will extend well beyond coastal areas…

USDOT should take a leadership role along with professional organizations in the forefront of civil engineering practice across all modes to initiate immediately a federally funded, multiagency research program.…Federal agencies have not focused generally on adaptation in addressing climate change.”

West Antarctic Ice Sheet and Ocean Upwelling

March 10, 2008

Science writer Marc Airhart writes in Geology: “The new IPCC reports on climate change had essentially sidestepped the issue of Antarctica’s potential contribution to sea level rise. The authors pointed out, rightly, that there was just too much uncertainty to make predictions.”

So what’s going on with study of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet? The new theory has to do with ocean upwelling.

“Antarctica is encircled by atmospheric currents that largely insulate it from the rest of Earth’s climate and keep it colder than it otherwise would be,” Airhart writes. These air currents push water away from the continent. “As surface water is pushed away, warm deep water rises to replace it.” The stronger the air currents, the more the upwelling. It looks like what is happening is that as the world climate warms, these air currents become stronger and there is more upwelling.

This is the hypothesis. There isn’t enough observational data to validate this hypothesis yet.

However, it has been observed that the antarctic glaciers aren’t melting from the top, they’re melting from underneath.  If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet lost it’s “plug”, the Thwaits Glacier, the rest of the WAIS might follow.

 NASA’s Dr. Jim Hansen predicts a 5 meter (16 1/2 feet) rise in sea level by the end of this century.  Back in 1991, the EPA estimated the cost of a one meter rise in sea level would be around $250-$500 billion dollars.  But the fact that this rise will  be happening everywhere all at once, in the midst of an economic recession … really, I have no idea of what the fallout of something like that would be.  It will be a disaster, but a disaster in slow-motion.