We should all be paying attention.
On Greenland’s Helheim Glacier, just inside the Arctic Circle, New York University air and ocean scientist David Holland’s coat is discarded on the ground. His colleagues are working on watery melting ice without gloves. In one of the closest towns, Kulusuk, the morning temperature reached a shirtsleeve 52 degrees Fahrenheit.
In this remote landscape, sound travels for miles. Every few minutes there’s a faint rumbling that sounds like thunder, but it’s not. It’s ice cracking.
The ice Holland is standing on is thousands of years old. It will be gone within a year or two, adding yet more water to rising seas worldwide.
On August 1, Greenland’s ice sheet endured the largest single-day melt event in recorded history. A heat wave melted 5 million Olympic pool’s worth of water in one day. By the end of this summer, about 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet, scientists estimate.
The sparse population of this island has been swelled by scientists studying the ice melt for causes. NASA oceanographer Josh Willis, who is also in Greenland, says what’s happening is a combination of man-made climate change and natural but weird weather patterns. Glaciers here do shrink in the summer and grow in the winter, but nothing like this year.
Holland and his team have installed radar and GPS to track the ice movement and help explain why salty, warm, once-tropical water attacking the glacier’s “underbelly” has been bubbling to the surface.
“It takes a really long time to grow an ice sheet, thousands and thousands of years, but they can be broken up or destroyed quite rapidly,” Holland said.
Holland and NASA scientists at the glacier, suspect that warm, salty water that comes in part from the Gulf Stream in North America is playing a bigger role than previously thought in melting Greenland’s ice.
And if that’s the case, it’s probably bad news for our planet, because it means faster and more melting and higher sea level rise. A recent study predicts that by the year 2100, Greenland alone could cause 3 or 4 feet (more than one meter) of sea level rise.
The massive ice shedding also changes Greenland’s gravitational pull. Richard Ally, an expert on ice sheets at Penn State University, explains it this way. “The ice sheet currently is so massive that its gravity affects the sea level—the ocean is attracted to Greenland’s ice enough to raise the sea level around Greenland.
“If the ice melts the mass is spread out into the world ocean very rapidly, but then the extra water that was held near Greenland also spreads out,” Alley said.
That change in gravitational pull will affect some areas more than others. Miami, already affected by “king tides” (higher-than-normal calm weather tide caused by specific alignments of the sun and moon, set daily high tide records for a week straight in early August despite a total lack of storms in the region.
“Under a full or new moon, the tide becomes so elevated that, when combined with sea-level rise, the water filters through the drains flooding the streets of downtown Miami,” Irene Sans, a meteorologist at WFTV in Central Florida said.
Miami’s flooding has rapidly become routine. Since it happens beneath blue skies, many residents may overlook the dire warning signs mixed in with the waters. But while king tides are a natural phenomenon, the main reason they’re menacing Miami is because of climate change-related sea level rise. And as glaciers in Greenland, Antarctica and elsewhere continue to melt, adding water to already swelling seas, the 85,000 Miami residents who live below three feet above sea level need to start thinking about their futures.
How odd it is to think that Greenland holds Miami’s fate in its hands in terms of sea level rise.
Of course, Miami isn’t the only place in the world in real peril, like this decade danger, of going underwater. Never before have so many humans lived so close to the coasts: More than a hundred million people worldwide live within three feet (one meter) of mean sea level.
In the United States, that incudes Baja, CA, Boston, MA, Charleston, SC, Jacksonville, FLA, Norfolk, VA, Savannah, GA. And, of course, the entire Florida Keys and New Orleans, which is also 5-10’ below sea level.
Megacities where human populations have concentrated near coastal plains or river deltas—Venice, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Jakarta, Tokyo, and New York—are at risk. The projected economic and humanitarian impacts on low-lying, densely populated, and desperately poor countries like Bangladesh are potentially catastrophic.
Beyond single cities, rising oceans threaten some entire nations, such as the Netherlands. The story of the little Dutch Boy illustrates the fact that this nation already depends on engineering to keep the sea out, such as the flood gates shown here. Rising sea levels and more intense storms will make it more difficult for Rotterdam and other Dutch cities to keep their heads above water, according to the same research that warned of floods in Shanghai.
Scientists estimate that a one-meter (3-feet) increase in sea level could demolish much of Brugge, the Hague, and Amsterdam. A catastrophic nine-meter (30-foot) increase would obliterate most of the Netherlands.
If you, like the vast majority of us in the US, have been listening passively to dire warnings of global warming, it’s time to get more actively informed and involved.
Because Greenland is only the latest melt area.
Everywhere on Earth ice is changing. The famed snows of Kilimanjaro have melted more than 80 percent since 1912.
Glacier National Park in Montana used to have 150 glaciers, but now that number has shrunk to fewer than 30, and most of those remaining have shrunk in area by two-thirds. U.S. Geological Survey scientists predict that within 30 years all of the park’s namesake glaciers will disappear.
Glaciers in the Garhwal Himalaya in India are retreating so fast that researchers believe that most central and eastern Himalayan glaciers will virtually disappear by 2035.
Thawing permafrost has caused the ground to subside more than 15 feet in parts of Alaska.
From the Arctic to Peru, from Switzerland to the equatorial glaciers of Man Jaya in Indonesia, massive ice fields, monstrous glaciers, and sea ice are disappearing fast.
It’s not your imagination if you think the Earth is warming. Spring freshwater ice breakup in the Northern Hemisphere now occurs nine days earlier that it did 150 years ago, and autumn freeze-up ten days later.
Sea levels have risen and fallen over the Earth’s 4.6-billion-year history. But scientists point out that the recent rate of global sea water rise has departed from the average rate of the last three thousand years, and is rising more rapidly—about one-tenth of an inch a year, and increasing. A continuation of that trend will cause striking changes in the world’s coastlines. In our lifetimes, folks.
Researchers predicted two decades ago that the most visible impacts from a globally warmer world would occur first at high latitudes: rising air and sea temperatures, earlier snowmelt, and later ice freeze-up reductions in sea ice, thawing permafrost, more erosion, and increases in storm intensity.
We paid only passing attention in 2000. In 2010. Guess what? Now all those impacts have been documented.
As daunting as this is, the latest science on Greenland also points to a window of hope: Greenland’s meltdown is not yet irreversible. That self-sustaining process of melt-begetting-more-melt would kick in at around 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of global warming.
That means whether or not Greenland’s ice sheet melts completely is almost entirely in human control: A full-scale mobilization — including rapidly transforming the basis of the global economy to a future where fossil fuels are no longer used — would probably be enough to keep most of the remaining ice frozen, where it belongs.
But that can’t happen without United States support.
And yet, with Greenland melting, the Amazon burning, and the oceans rising, there was one very conspicuous empty chair at the G-7 climate meeting in France last week.
The USA is the biggest oil consuming country and accounts for nearly 20% of the world’s total oil consumption per day. Under President Trump, it’s also the only country not to agree to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. The US military alone generates a daily carbon footprint equal to Portugal, so it’s highly unlikely those global targets will be met.
However--despite the absence of Congressional or Presidential support, four automobile makers—Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, just voluntarily agreed to meet California’s fuel economy and emission standards, committing to produce more efficient and cleaner vehicles over the next seven years. They agreed to meet higher standards than the Trump administration requires, ignoring Trump’s attempt to freeze and rollback Obama-era fuel economy and emissions standards, claiming higher standards would make vehicles too expensive.
Evidently these four automakers think preserving the planet is important along with profits.
It’s a promising start. Together the four represent about a third of the U.S. market. Let’s hope other large manufacturers follow suit.
And maybe, just maybe, if we all, collectively, make enough noise, our U.S. leaders will begin working to save the planet as well.