Runaway Antarctica

Do you hear the turnstile about to click!

Not so long ago I wrote a series of three posts under the titles of Interconnections One, Interconnections Two and, yes you guessed it 😉 , Interconnections Three. They were about the consequences of rising sea levels.

Now one might argue that this has nothing whatsoever to do with Learning from Dogs but I would disagree. For as I declare in The Vision of this blog:

It seems to me that a Vision statement should encapsulate just why the owners of the enterprise are committed to that venture.  The author of Learning from Dogs is committed to this project; here is the Vision.

Our children require a world that understands the importance of faith, integrity and honesty

Learning from Dogs will serve as a reminder of the values of life and the power of unconditional love – as so many, many dogs prove each and every day

Constantly trying to get to the truth …

The power of greater self-awareness and faith; faith that the only way forward for us is through the truth …

For in a very real and devastating way even a small rise in global sea level is going to cause tens of thousands of dogs, and their loving owners, to become homeless. We are long overdue a commitment from our global leaders and power-brokers to that, “.. faith, integrity and honesty.”

However, championing that greater self-awareness is what blogger Patrice Ayme does almost all of the time. With his kind permission, I republish his latest post on the state of the Antarctic Ice.


Runaway Antarctica

I have written for years that a runaway Antarctica was certain, with half the icy continent melting rather spectacularly on an horizon of two centuries at most, and probably much less than that. This rested on the fact that half of Antarctica rests on nothing but bedrock at the bottom of the sea. At the bottom of what should naturally be the sea, in the present circumstances of significant greenhouse gas concentrations.

Visualize this: until sometimes in the Nineteenth Century, GreenHouse Gas (GHG) concentration was 280 ppm (280 parts per million), including the man-made sort. Now we are close to 500 ppm, using a variety of exotic gases we produce industrially, among them, CO2. In CO2 alone we are at:  Week beginning on March 20, 2016: 405.62 ppm. Weekly value from 1 year ago: 401.43 ppm. Weekly value from 10 years ago: 382.76 ppm. So the CO2 alone is augmenting at a bit more than 1% a year. Thus we will be at an equivalent of 550 ppm in ten years (including the full panoply of all the other man-made greenhouse gases, not just CO2). There is evidence that, with just 400 ppm, disaster is guaranteed.

Now visualize this:

How Antarctica would appear if its ice melted: it’s half under the sea.

Why so watery? Because the enormous glaciers, up to nearly 5,000 meter thick, press down on the continent with their enormous weight. Since the end of the last glaciation, 10,000 years ago, Scandinavia has been rising, and is still rising (I long used a picture with a similar information about Antarctica’s bedrock.)

A paper published on line in Nature on March 30, 2016, that is, two days ago, “Contribution of Antarctica to past and future sea-level rise” opines that:

Polar temperatures over the last several million years have, at times, been slightly warmer than today, yet global mean sea level has been 6–9 metres higher as recently as the Last Interglacial (130,000 to 115,000 years ago) and possibly higher during the Pliocene epoch (about three million years ago). In both cases the Antarctic ice sheet has been implicated as the primary contributor, hinting at its future vulnerability. Here we use a model coupling ice sheet and climate dynamics—including previously underappreciated processes linking atmospheric warming with hydrofracturing of buttressing ice shelves and structural collapse of marine-terminating ice cliffs—that is calibrated against Pliocene and Last Interglacial sea-level estimates and applied to future greenhouse gas emission scenarios. Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.

Notice that the scenario evoked in the last sentence is different from my  very old scenario, which is similar to the one advanced in November 2015 by the famous Hansen and Al. (I raised the alarm before Hansen, at least seven years ago). In my scenario, and Hansen’s the ice sheets melt from below, due to warm sea water intrusion.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is larger than Mexico.

Here is a taste of the paper (I have a Nature subscription):

“Reconstructions of the global mean sea level (GMSL) during past warm climate intervals including the Pliocene (about three million years ago)1 and late Pleistocene interglacials2, 3, 4, 5 imply that the Antarctic ice sheet has considerable sensitivity. Pliocene atmospheric CO2 concentrations were comparable to today’s (~400 parts per million by volume, p.p.m.v.)6, but some sea-level reconstructions are 10–30 m higher1, 7. In addition to the loss of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS)2, these high sea levels require the partial retreat of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), which is further supported by sedimentary evidence from the Antarctic margin8. During the more recent Last Interglacial (LIG, 130,000 to 115,000 years ago), GMSL was 6–9.3 m higher than it is today2, 3, 4, at a time when atmospheric CO2 concentrations were below 280 p.p.m.v. (ref. 9) and global mean temperatures were only about 0–2 °C warmer10. This requires a substantial sea-level contribution from Antarctica of 3.6–7.4 m in addition to an estimated 1.5–2 m from Greenland11, 12 and around 0.4 m from ocean steric effects10.”

So notice: when CO2 ppm per volume was at 280 130,000 to 115,000 years ago, sea level was up to ten meter higher than now. And now we are at 500 ppmv…

And notice again: When CO2 ppmv was at 400, sea level was up to 30 meters (100 feet) higher than today. And now we are at 500 ppm, and, in a blink, in ten years, at 550 ppm.

Here is another example from the paper. I said all of this before, but to have scientists paid to do research in this area write it black on white in the world’s most prestigious scientific magazine, will no doubt endow me with greater, and much desired, gravitas. So let me indulge, not so much for my greater glory, but because it should help taking what I have long said more seriously.

“Much of the WAIS sits on bedrock hundreds to thousands of metres below sea level (Fig. 1a)13. Today, extensive floating ice shelves in the Ross and Weddell Seas, and smaller ice shelves and ice tongues in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas (Fig. 1b) provide buttressing that impedes the seaward flow of ice and stabilizes marine grounding zones (Fig. 2a). Despite their thickness (typically about 1 km near the grounding line to a few hundred metres at the calving front), a warming ocean has the potential to quickly erode ice shelves from below, at rates exceeding 10 m yr−1 °C−1 (ref. 14). Ice-shelf thinning and reduced backstress enhance seaward ice flow, grounding-zone thinning, and retreat (Fig. 2b). Because the flux of ice across the grounding line increases strongly as a function of its thickness15, initial retreat onto a reverse-sloping bed (where the bed deepens and the ice thickens upstream) can trigger a runaway Marine Ice Sheet Instability (MISI; Fig. 2c)15, 16, 17. Many WAIS grounding zones sit precariously on the edge of such reverse-sloped beds, but the EAIS also contains deep subglacial basins with reverse-sloping, marine-terminating outlet troughs up to 1,500 m deep (Fig. 1). The ice above floatation in these East Antarctic basins is much thicker than in West Antarctica, with the potential to raise GMSL by around 20 m if the ice in those basins is lost13. Importantly, previous ice-sheet simulations accounting for migrating grounding lines and MISI dynamics have shown the potential for repeated WAIS retreats and readvances over the past few million years18, but could only account for GMSL rises of about 1 m during the LIG and 7 m in the warm Pliocene, which are substantially smaller than geological estimates.”

I said it before. Including the details. So the evidence was clear, and out there. The optimism (it will take 5 centuries for 50 feet of sea level rise) is not supported by evidence. Actually collapsing channels coming from inverted rivers running up on the bellies of ice sheets are now obvious on satellite pictures and collapse of major ice shelves is going to be a matter of years, not centuries.

But science is made by tribes and these tribes honor the gods (of plutocracy) who finance them, and their whims. So they don’t want to make their sponsors feel bad. So they say unsupported, optimistic stuff, contradicted by a first order analysis.

Science is good, metascience, better. Metascience includes the sociological reasons which explain why some scientists will take some “facts” for obvious (although, coming from another sociology, they are not).

Deep in the Nature paper, in the quote above, or in four drawings and graphs of future sea level rise, one can find projections according to what various models “predict”… 130,000 years ago (!) The “Old Physics” model predicts one meter rise of the sea (this is the official UN maximal prediction for 2100). The new model, again starting with the present conditions, predict more than a six meter rise (!) This is a case of metascience playing with sea level.

This way, the authors of the paper will be able to say, one day: we told you so. While at the same time not irritating their sponsors now (because to understand what they are really saying takes quite a while, and has to be understood as tongue in cheek, when they pretend to apply the analysis to 130,000 years ago… What they really mean is six meters now, not just one meter… Bye bye Wall Street. Punished by its own instruments…)

The question is not whether we will be able to avoid a twenty meter sea level rise: that’s, unbelievably, a given (barring unforeseeable, yet imaginable technological advances to extract quickly a lot of CO2 from the atmosphere). The question is whether we will avoid a 60 meter rise.

Patrice Ayme’


Let me add a footnote.

Namely, that on Yves Smith’s Naked Capitalism blog on Saturday was an item under the heading of A Wake-Up Call on Climate Change and Clean Energy.

By Eric Beinhocker, Executive Director, INET Oxford. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

A stark warning from Institute researchers on the probability that ‘2°C capital stock’ will be reached in 2017

A new study from the Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School and the Smith School for Enterprise and Environment, University of Oxford, shows that we are uncomfortably close to the point where the world’s energy system commits the planet to exceeding 2°C.

In the paper, to be published in the peer-reviewed journal Applied Energy, the authors calculate the Two degree capital stock – the global stock of electricity infrastructure from which future emissions have a 50% probability of staying within 2°C of warming. The researchers estimate that the world will reach Two degree capital stock next year, in 2017.

Read the full item here.

It’s enough to make us all feel angry and hopeless. That would be understandable but wrong.

Go and read my Inconnections Three for within that post is this:

Want to fight climate change? Here are the 7 critical life changes you should make.

For the sake of millions of us and our wonderful pets stay with it and demand change from our politicians and leaders in every way that you can.

18 thoughts on “Runaway Antarctica

  1. I know Paul.. the facts that Patrice brings should be making everyone of us alter our habits.. Yet why is it that there are those countries still flouting their emissions ? While the little folk get Green taxed? on Bills and hidden Green taxes?

    I have come to the awareness that this world WILL change its form.. For many parts will become submerged including most probably where I live.. As we are not high enough above certain sea levels..

    I do what I can to help with my own footprints upon our Earth..
    What tell me is the answer when those who rule turn a blind eye to what will eventually happen?..
    When so many are shouting loudly for them to listen ..

    1. “When so many are shouting loudly for them to listen ..” Yes, Yes and Yes! Which is why we little folk, in every way that we can, have to make it clear that what is going on by those who supposedly rule us is unacceptable. Make it so clear that our noise even drowns out their inner thoughts!

      Well said, Sue.

    2. Hi Sue, thanks for the comment! The powers that be tell us WE have to change. Yet, in truth, THEY have to change. Them and their laws (the laws Congress and the like impose on us). A CARBON TAX is both necessary AND SUFFICIENT, to change everything. Composting, zero waste in packaging, going vegan, will not change much of anything.

      But a CARBON TAX will change everything. It’s not just that we will get a much more efficient economy. Using CO2 industrially, extracting it to make stuff, just as plants do.

      So what we can do is what Paul is doing, namely fostering political, social and economic change, first, by making people aware of the disaster at hand. And ultimately, a carbon tax will come from political change (as I said in my reply to Marg, people can vote Sanders…) It better come really soon… As I said, the melting of a third of Antarctica is a given at this point. The choice will still have is whether we will stop there. We better.

      1. Thank you for your reply Patrice.
        I agree we so need to educate on Zero waste and packaging.. And that those at the TOP are the ones who need to comply and change ..

        So pleased you mentioned going Vegan too 🙂 If we were all educated more upon what the Cattle were contributing to the environment.. Maybe our eating habits and intense farming of meat production would be altered.. As it is most are unaware just How Cattle are affecting greenhouse gas’s..

        The world’s problems is all of our responsibility. And we each have to do what we can to help conserve and save our environment.
        Many thanks for your response and the awareness you bring.

      2. The problem I see is that our great leaders have incredibly more power than us. At our scale, we can engage only pathetic small efforts. At the level of the great leaders, giant efforts are possible.
        Simplest example? A hefty carbon tax (compensated by subsidies for the poor). That would force a virtuous lifestyle.

        For example I know people who jet around the world. For no good reason, except they can. So make air travel more expensive (especially for the wealthiest, by taxing corporate/business flying much more). France actually tried that for more than ten years, but it just penalized Air France, as no other country followed.

        Sweden also has had a carbon tax since the 1990s…

      3. I know when I went on holiday and travelled through Switzerland their cars when stood at traffic lights also had to turn off their engines.. This was also back in the late 90’s something as simple as that can have a huge affect also.
        In the mean time I do what I can within my own world.. And Sign ever petition going which is making people aware 🙂
        The problem is its all too little too much too late..
        And despite all what the G20 summit of heads of nations discuss Nothing is being changed… As they move the goal posts into the future all the time.. And when the future arrives.. Still targets were not met..

        Its never going to change unless something Very drastic causes the world to sit up and take stock when land mass disappears .. But you can bet your boots that those at the Top will not be the ones who suffer the most..
        Sigh! to a problem that is not going to go away, or be solved any time soon..

  2. Greed, apathy and wilful blindness have brought all this about – and many of the other problems facing life on Earth. We have all become so used to our present lifestyles and I doubt that we’ll be able to change in time. Presidential candidates like Trump and Cruze, both climate change deniers, offer no hope on this score. Hilary may say a lot but is in the hands of the corporates.
    It’s easy to get very despondent. However, I must say that probably the main thing in my life which lifts my spirits and gives me joy on a daily basis, even more than my family, are my pets, especially my No. 1 buddy, my Jack Russell cross.

    1. Marg, as it is with us. More joy than one can imagine. Likewise, it is very easy for me to get very despondent, and I do at times. As well as Jeannie and our animals lifting my spirits so do does reading replies from you, Sue and many others. Thank you!

    2. Trump, Cruz and Hillary may be hopeless as far as being completely oblivious to the greatest threat to the biosphere in 66 million years (especially the latter two, as they depend upon fossil fuel plutocrats to satisfy their astronomical, Trump-like, greed). However Bernie Sanders, with a much longer political career that those three (together!) is definitely not in the pockets of those who want death and destruction for all of life to satisfy their denial of the human condition.

  3. Frankly I think our world is doomed and it will be much sooner than most scientists believe. Politicians live in the here and now- all because of greed. Very few admit that there is a problem. It is exceedingly sad.

    1. There will be many who wouldn’t disagree with you! Part of me shares your fears, yet there’s another part of me that sees a slim chance of ‘people power’ forcing massive political change reasonably soon. By that I mean in fewer than five years time.

  4. Thanks for alerting me to this, Paul. However, if you will forgive me, I have addressed my comments to Patrice here.

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