Click to enlarge — Peter Convey on his way to the office
From the ground in this extreme northern part of Antarctica, spectacularly white and blinding ice seems to extend forever. What can’t be seen is the battle raging thousands of feet below to re-shape Earth.
Water is eating away at the Antarctic ice, melting it where it hits the oceans. As the ice sheets slowly thaw, water pours into the sea – 130 billion tons of ice per year for the past decade, according to NASA satellite calculations. That’s the weight of more than 356,000 Empire State Buildings, enough ice melt to fill more than 1.3 million Olympic swimming pools. And the melting is accelerating.
In the worst case scenario, Antarctica’s melt could push sea levels up 10 feet (3 meters) worldwide in a century or two, recurving heavily populated coastlines…
Here on the Antarctic peninsula, where the continent is warming the fastest because the land sticks out in the warmer ocean, 49 billion tons of ice are lost each year, according to NASA. The water warms from below, causing the ice to retreat on to land, and then the warmer air takes over. Temperatures rose 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last half century, much faster than Earth’s average, said Ricardo Jana, a glaciologist for the Chilean Antarctic Institute…
Robert Island hits all the senses: the stomach-turning smell of penguin poop; soft moss that invites the rare visitor to lie down, as if on a water bed; brown mud, akin to stepping in gooey chocolate. Patches of the moss, which alternates from fluorescent green to rust red, have grown large enough to be football fields. Though 97 percent of the Antarctic Peninsula is still covered with ice, entire valleys are now free of it, ice is thinner elsewhere and glaciers have retreated, Peter Convey of the British Antarctic Survey said…
A few years back, scientists figured Antarctica as a whole was in balance, neither gaining nor losing ice. Experts worried more about Greenland; it was easier to get to and more noticeable, but once they got a better look at the bottom of the world, the focus of their fears shifted. Now scientists in two different studies use the words “irreversible” and “unstoppable” to talk about the melting in West Antarctica. Ice is gaining in East Antarctica, where the air and water are cooler, but not nearly as much as it is melting to the west.
“Before Antarctica was much of a wild card,” said University of Washington ice scientist Ian Joughin. “Now I would say it’s less of a wild card and more scary than we thought before…”
“Changing the climate of the Earth or thinning glaciers is fine as long as you don’t do it too fast. And right now we are doing it as fast as we can. It’s not good,” said Eric Rignot, of NASA. “We have to stop it; or we have to slow it down as best as we can.”
I understand how short-sighted most folks are. After all, if our politicians only think ahead to the next election, if corporate CEOs only think ahead to the next quarter, if the average person thinks long-term planning means paying off your car – or maybe a home – 100 years or 1000 years is beyond comprehension. But, scientists, especially in a discipline like climatology have to think in geologic time and those wee chunks like 1000 years happen in the blink of an eye. Look over the edge of your TV set, folks. Read, search, include some real science in whatever you add to your thinking life.
Cripes, I remember the first ice geologist I met. I was only 20 and working as a tech in a non-ferrous metals research lab. And with all of his qualifications, the only job he could find here in the States was investigating stress-corrosion cracking – even though he had practically defined the discipline during the couple of years he spent in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year.
I got to spend lunchtimes with him and a few other scientists from the lab who didn’t mind including in a kid who could only afford to go to engineering night school.
He taught us all about geologic time. He tried to teach us about ice.