Ominous Messages during Antarctic Summer 2023-24 so far

Guterres1
Figure: 1 United Nation Secretary-General António Guterres in Antarctica. UN Photo/Mark Garten || “Antarctic sea ice hit an all-time low. That matters for us all. What happens in Antarctica doesn’t stay in Antarctica. We live in an interconnected world,” warned the Secretary-General. “Leaders must not let the hopes of people around the world for a sustainable planet melt away. They must make COP28 count.”[1]

On October 23, 2023 when many in India was busy celebrating ‘victory’ (Bijaya Dashami) or worshipping weapons (Ayudh) title of one research paper published in NATURE: Climate Change was rather shocking: <Unavoidable future increase in West Antarctic ice-shelf melting over the twenty-first century[2]> which is not at all good news. Madame Naughten and co-researchers found some alarming hints from simulations they made based on different scenarios. Their data, method and code, all are available in public domain (it was put in Open-Access category by Nature Climate Change). Till now the most popularly known scenarios are Paris 1.5°C and Paris 2°C which mean 1.5°C and 2°C more than the average earth surface temperature in between 1850 and 1900. These researchers took these two and then two more scenarios: RCP4.5[3] and RCP 8.5 which mean (i) moderate scenario, radiative forcing stabilizes at 4.5 watt/metre-square, peak Greenhouse Gas emission will be reached at 2040 and then things will be better and better and (ii) worst case scenario, business as usual, emission will continue to increase throughout twenty-first century and consequences too will continue unabated. RCP 8.5 and Paris 2°C, these two are such ‘futures’ that the Governments are supposedly trying to avoid and trying to keep the world within some moderate RCP 4.5 and maximum harm that world may suffer [including sea-level rise of 10-75 cm] would still give civilisations on the globe chances to carry on, which will be well-nigh impossible at Paris 2°C.


These researchers say: <Mid-range mitigation scenarios (RCP 4.5) and the more ambitious aims of the Paris Agreement […Paris 1.5 °C or Paris 2 °C] are statistically indistinguishable in terms of Amundsen Sea warming trends over the twenty-first century[4].> Amundsen sea will likely warm up to 2 °C by 2100. Hence, they say, <The opportunity to preserve the WAIS in its present-day state has probably passed, and policymakers should be prepared for several metres of sea-level rise over the coming centuries[5].> WAIS is west Antarctic ice sheet that is losing mass due to melting and Antarctica’s largest contributor to sea-level rise.

G1
Figure: 2 Boxplot of trends in ocean temperature and ice-shelf basal mass loss for each scenario. [Researchers’ Fig 2 in the essay Unavoidable Future …melting over 21st century. This plot shows, to some extent, that Paris 1.5 °C, Paris 2°C and RCP 4.5 do not have much difference in temperature trend and melting of West Antarctic.]

On the same day, 23.10.23 another ‘associate content’ article[6] had hit us. That also appeared in Nature Climate Change. The researcher, Taimoor Sohail, informs readers that, < The collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is a worrying climate tipping point, with the potential to raise global sea level by up to 5.3 metres.[7]> And then he gave a Cassandra prediction, <assessment of future climate scenarios suggests that accelerated melting of ice shelves in West Antarctica is locked in, even for the most ambitious emissions reduction scenarios.[8]>

Exactly after a month, on November 23, 2023, UN Secretary General António Guterres and Chile’s President Gabriel Boric landed at Chilean Air Base in Antarctica and walked there, meeting scientists of some countries and others there to have some first-hand idea about the health of the southmost continent before the COP-28 meeting.

Guterres
Figure 3: UN Sec-Gen Guterres and President of Chile Boris walking on Antarctic after landing in Chilean Air-Base, November 23, 2023, Image courtesy Reuters

The Secretary General António Guterres surveyed some important glaciers boarding a ship, saw some penguin inhabited places and some other rapidly melting sites, and tried to get some estimation. He stressed phasing out of fossil fuels to start immediately at COP 28.

But what might be the likely result. From energy databases we saw no trend in slowing down of production of fossil fuels. Statista database presented a fossil fuel demand scenario in November 2022 which made forecasts of three scenarios – stated policies (as stated by governments), announced pledges (it is yet to be known how much of those pledges come true), and really what should have been done if Paris 1.5°C is to be attained, i.e., if global warming will have to be kept well below 1.5°C (i.e., 1.5°C more than the average surface temperature of earth in between 1850 and 1900). It was obvious that till 2022 end the world governments and businesses were not at all ready for steering the world to Paris 1.5°C.

G2
Figure 4: Global fossil fuel demand forecast 1965-2050, by scenario[9], image courtesy STATISTA (a German data & infographic organisation)

If the Statista prediction seems old (made in 22 end) we can try to remember what happened in 2023 in the business field of energy and particularly Indian Coal and US Oil. In these countries the energy companies are mining fast and getting ready to do more. In India, just one company, Coal India Limited, increase its production by 12.8% over 2022 production figure in 2023! Many private companies are acquiring land for coal mining which the govt is giving them evicting indigenous tribe people from forest lands; Asia’s largest coal mine is going to be started in the state of West Bengal. UN Secretary General may rest assured that governments like these are more interested in business than climate talks.

MIT Technology Review Bulletin of December 21, 2023 has an article by Casey Crownhart. There we find: “Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are expected to hit 36.8 billion metric tons in 2023, according to the Global Carbon Budget report.” This is at least 1% more than the corresponding figure of 2022, Casey writes.

Table: U.S. Field Production of Crude Oil (Thousand Barrels per Day)

T1
Table 1: US Field Production of Oil, Source: EIA[10] Note how 2023 figures exceed those of 2022, each month.

And lastly in 2023, the last month of the year, December 2023, saw something unthought of. Iceberg A23a broke away from Antarctica. The iceberg, which reportedly weighs nearly one trillion metric tons, has been seen freely drifting beyond Antarctic waters toward the Southern Ocean. This is a large iceberg, very large. Several times the area of big cities like New York or Tokyo, more than the land area of the state of Goa in India, and its thickness is four hundred metres. Breaking away of this monstrous iceberg shows the extent of warming of the ocean water around Antarctic, water below the ice shelves and increase in polar temperature.   

f5
Figure 5: Map shows path of Iceberg A23a as it breaks away from Antarctica. NASA. December 6, image courtesy CNBC[11]

As on mid-January 2024, the iceberg was seen to be moving towards the southern tip of South America, nearing South Georgia island (under UK). It is melting very rapidly.

As if to erase our anxiety over warming and climate disorder this new year, scientists or editors of some scientific journals tried to present a rosy picture of future in early January 2024. < JANUARY 9, 2024 | Editors’ notes | Scientists outline a bold solution to climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice | by Oregon State University[12]> but how do we know exactly what might be the future? If societies change, not all but a sizeable section, if economic policies change, foreign policies (war and peace) change, priorities change, views and outlooks change, basis of calculations will also change. To address this the UN experts, “international team of climate scientists, economists and energy systems modelers) to provide a toolkit for the climate change research community to carry out integrated, multi-disciplinary analysis.” They tried to develop “stories that happened in future” as the UN document quotes from Armstrong & Green (2012), and ultimately built up five types of narratives based on alternative socioeconomic developments based on which SSPs were designed.[13]

F6
Figure 6: Five Shared Socioeconomic Pathways envisioned by UN.[14] The SSP 2 is actually so-called business-as-usual with ‘renewable’ based business, and etc. facing task of mitigation and adaptation which the scientists named ‘muddling through’.

The scientists who outlines ‘bold solution to climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice’, William J Ripple, Christopher Wolf, Detlef P van Vuuren, Jillian W Gregg and Manfred Lenzen from universities of the USA, the Netherlands, and Australia, took SSP 1 as the future scenario and built up an optimistic future projection based on that, which naturally follows from SSP 1[15]. Why they took SSP 1 as planet’s future at this moment? Section 3 of their paper starts with, “As a future climate scenario under optimistic conditions we selected and graphed the SSP1 scenario in combination with stringent climate policy (SSP1-1.9) to the year 2100 which has a ‘green growth’ storyline that involves significant changes in energy production, land use, and other areas (Van Vuuren et al 2017)[16].” Whereas the Section 2, which considers the historical path, starts with and continue analysis the past 2 centuries when different productions and consumptions increased greenhouse gases, decreased forest areas and biodiversity. It is sad if scientists take arbitrary assumption of socioeconomic pathway change based on no real fact-of-life but rather on their optimism.

When the countries of the world are immersed in a mixed soup of SSP 3, SSP 4 and SSP 5, then a future of SSP 1 can only come about by revolutions in at least major countries of OECD and G20. Revolutions mean revolutions, not parliamentary change of power, revolutions mean dismantling of old policy makers (executives), dismantling old military and police forces, peoples’ power in countries, peoples cooperating from village/town level to planetary level and etc – only then some concrete shapes of SSP 1 can be seen emerging, perhaps better that what we can visualise in our study, our libraries and laboratories. [18-01-2024]

Sandeep Banerjee is an activist who writes on political and socioeconomic issues and also on environmental issues. Some of his articles are published in Frontier Weekly. He lives in West Bengal, India.  Presently he is a research worker. He can be reached at [email protected]


[1] https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/heres-latest-from-un-united-nations-n7bnf/

[2] Naughten, K.A., Holland, P.R. & De Rydt, J. Unavoidable future increase in West Antarctic ice-shelf melting over the twenty-first century. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 1222–1228 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01818-x

[3] Here readers can try to visualise RCP 4.5 and also switch to other RCP scenarios including RCP 8.5 https://sos.noaa.gov/catalog/datasets/climate-model-temperature-change-rcp-45-2006-2100/

[4] See 1

[5] ibid

[6] Sohail, T. Committed future ice-shelf melt. Nat. Clim. Chang. 13, 1164–1165 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-023-01817-y

[7] See 3

[8] ibid

[9] Fossil fuel demand worldwide from 1965 to 2020, with a forecast until 2050 by scenario(in exajoules)Published by N. Sönnichsen, Oct 12, 2023 https://www.statista.com/statistics/1275666/fossil-fuel-supply-worldwide/

[10] https://www.eia.gov/dnav/pet/hist/LeafHandler.ashx?n=pet&s=mcrfpus2&f=m

[11] Taken from https://www.cnbc.com/2023/12/06/worlds-largest-iceberg-a23a-is-on-the-move-stoking-climate-concerns.html

[12] https://phys.org/news/2024-01-scientists-outline-bold-solution-climate.html

[13] https://unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/energy/se/pdfs/CSE/PATHWAYS/2019/ws_Consult_14_15.May.2019/supp_doc/SSP2_Overview.pdf

[14] Ibid

[15] An environmental and socially just climate mitigation pathway for a planet in peril, William J Ripple et al 2024 Environ. Res. Lett. 19 021001DOI10.1088/1748-9326/ad059e https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ad059e

[16] Ibid 

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