Antarctica

A recent report out of West Antarctica is rattling scientists.

It’s all about heat, big-time heat, encroaching upon the world’s biggest chunk of ice that locks down a couple hundred feet of sea level rise. This kind of news is enough to raise the shackles of smart well-informed people, as excessive CO2 emissions spewing like crazy ever since the turn of the 21st century are now flat-out playing with fire in a very dangerous corner of the planet.

Meanwhile, regarding this very dicey situation, what will the leading nations of the world do? A Marshall Plan operation? Or nothing? Hmm. Based upon a 30-year trail of unmitigated failures by nation/states to meet commitments to cut emissions, probably nothing! But at some point in time it’ll be too late to do anything other than photos for posterity, whatever remains?

According to a highly regarded climate authority Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: “It’s the sea melting the ice from below, it’s not atmospheric melting from above. And this is really, really worrying … and quite surprising, because up until 10 years ago, we were absolutely convinced that the Greenland ice sheet and the Arctic was the more sensitive of the two poles.” (Source, Bob Berwyn, Antarctica Researchers Report an Extraordinary Marine Heatwave That Could Threaten Antarctica’s ice Shelves, Inside Climate News, Feb. 12, 2023)

Aboard the research ship RV Laurence M. Gould, cruising along Antarctica’s west coast, according to Carlos Moffat, chief scientist, Palmer Long Term Ecological Research Program: “Even as somebody who’s been looking at these changing systems for a few decades, I was taken aback by what I saw, by the degree of warming that I saw… We don’t know how long this is going to last. We don’t fully understand the consequences of this kind of event, but this looks like an extraordinary marine heatwave,” Ibid.

If extraordinary warm conditions continue, it could bring rapid destabilization of the critical underpinnings of the global climate system, impacting ice shelves, glaciers, coastal ecosystems and ocean currents. Already, a similar pattern swept the Arctic, as it approaches a dangersome iceless state. Accordingly, an iceless Arctic is a foreboding event that no climate scientist wants, as it amplifies Greenland’s melt rate, which is already leaning on the ropes.

Honestly, the world’s icebound ecosystems are losing it so much faster than anybody ever expected. It’s very, very, very disconcerting and should motivate world leaders to do something more than simply making slick cameo appearances at UN climate conferences, 110 world leaders showed up for COP 27 in Egypt, November 2022. Yet experts on climate change give UN-sponsored COP27 an F-grade. “A collective failure,” according to The Lancet (est. 1923), which is the world’s highest impact academic journal.

According to Moffat: “These episodes of relatively rapid ocean warming that can persist for months have been occurring all over the place. They haven’t been common in this region.” Ibid.

The RV Laurence M. Gould research vessel covered an area of 600 miles length crisscrossing at the 125-mile-wide continental shelf, documenting the heat. Moffat: “It’s very difficult to warm the ocean, and so when we see these conditions, that really speaks to a very intense forcing.”

Ocean Icy Death Spiral?

The Inside Climate News article poses the question of whether an “ocean icy death spiral” may develop. Significantly, recent studies have shown an erosion of the great continent’s buffer systems that protect it from climate extremes in other parts of the world, such as (1) a protective encircling swift ocean current and (2) defined belt of jet stream winds. Evidently, these crucial buffer systems are clearly weakening. The ramifications are beyond words.

Moreover, a Nature Climate Change study 2022 showed circumpolar deep water at 1,000-to-2,000 feet warmed considerably, allowing warm water to sneak beneath unsuspecting ice sheets. Only recently a study by a team from the University of East Anglia of Thwaites Ice Shelf, one of the biggest, and alas, tipsiest in West Antarctica, showed that one ice shelf sitting next to another ice shelf exports heat to its next-door neighbor. The study found the Pine Island Glacier flowing warm water next door into Thwaites. Thus, a series of ice shelves along the Amundsen Sea impact one another when warmer waters encroach the region. This could become a self-feeding frenzy of one major ice shelf/glacier tumbling another. The Amundsen Sea Embayment and its ice shelves include, Cosgrove, Pine Island, Thwaites, and several others.

All of which prompts the question of this decade: What’s behind this threatening rapid change of the world’s most prominent complex ice ecosystem?

In part, the answer is found in tail pipes of >1.5 billion cars of the world, which, in turn, prompts: Since the start of the 21st century, global warming has been on a breakneck pace:

  • According to NASA: Antarctica and Greenland combined lost 82 billion tons of ice mass per year in the 1990s compared with 475 billion tons per year in the 2010s, a sixfold increase in only a decade.
  • According to the Institute for European Environmental Policy: More than one-half (½) of all greenhouse gas emissions since 1750 were emitted over the past 30 years.
  • A comprehensive study shows the seas are rising three times (3x) faster than they were in the 1990s (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

With the aforementioned three points in mind, what’s next? Will it be stepped-up flat-out acceleration on top of current rapid acceleration (how about another 6-fold increase in ice mass loss per year?) and what then for Antarctica and Miami and does anybody really care enough to do something, anything, massively (worldwide) constructive, assuming it’s even possible, or will the Anthropocene run its course?

Robert Hunziker  is a journalist from Los Angeles


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