New data from the bottom of the planet has scientists warning that the world has seen what may only be the smallest fraction of what could lie ahead as the year when climate change has asserted itself as a global destabilizing force comes to a close.
Researchers studying some of the best climate logs ever compiled from one of the most isolated areas of the globe have found serious warming-related warning signs. Temperatures recorded at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet are rising at a previously unimaginable clip, making one of the globe’s most important regions for the health and stability of the planet the fastest-warming place on Earth.
Data taken at Byrd Station in Antarctica finds average the temperature there has risen 4.3 degrees since 1958, triple the warming rate for the rest of the globe and well above what scientists had previously estimated. The findings threaten to make many predictions of how fast and how widespread the effects of climate-related sea level rise will be as the Antarctic Ice Sheet warms and melts at climatic warp speed.
Worrying for experts is the type and timing of the heat and subsequent melting. With considerable melting having already occurred, the faster temperature rise is causing even greater ice loss because much of the record heat has come during summer months, when the ice is more vulnerable to damage and permanent melting.
The researchers responsible for the groundbreaking new temperature study are sounding alarms with each new layer of data they uncover, warning that the unprecedented Antarctic heat wave is causing “lots of damage” to the precious ice, guaranteeing more significant sea level rise than anyone had forecast.
The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is warming at twice the rate previously thought, say scientists who have teased the information from more than 50 years of temperature data at Byrd Station, in the center of the ice. The average temperature at that station has risen 4.3 degrees F (2.4 degrees C) since 1958, which is triple the warming rate of most of the planet and on par with the very fastest warming parts of the world.
Of particular concern is that the warming is partially taking place in the summer months. That’s when the already seasonal warmth, plus the new higher average air temperatures, combine and increase the likelihood of major melting events that destabilize the ice shelves. Those shelves hold back a lot of Antarctic glacial ice from reaching the sea, explained Ohio State University’s David Bromwich, the lead author on the study, which was published in the latest issue of Nature Geoscience.
“Lots of melting can do lots of damage to the ice shelves,” Bromwich told Discovery News. And that can ramp up Antarctica’s contribution to sea level rise worldwide. “We know that these melting events can happen today and we are likely to see more melting events.”
The gravity of the new developments in Antarctica is heightened by the well-documented disintegration of the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets. Experts suspect much of 2012′s extreme heat and severe weather that impacted North Amrica is directly linked to this year’s massive melting event.
The Arctic ice sheet marked a milestone event in 2012, with the record lowest amount of ice ever recorded occurring in September after nearly 5 million square miles of ice – an area larger than the contiguous United States — having vanished over summer.
Far less is known about climate and ice patterns in Antarctica than in the Arctic. With more researchers on site and significantly more data collection, what we have learned about the damage done to the Arctic through global warming may well be a blueprint for what lies ahead for the ice in Antarctica.
And what is known about the Arctic is far from encouraging. Each new report from government and academic researchers tracks more bad news for the “Earth’s air conditioner.” After a year of troubling records and extremes, experts contend the changes to the Arctic and its mounting instability can be categorized as “mind-boggling.”
The seventh annual Arctic Report Card released by NOAA finds the rapid melting underway in northern lands and waters is unlikely to diminish in the face of continued global warming. The single biggest finding: Despite fewer weird warm spells in the Arctic in 2012, compared to the past ten warm years, snow and ice extent continued to melt at a record-breaking pace.
Ominously a new mechanism seems to be driving these changes. Disappearing ice and snow no longer reflect as much sunlight from the Earth. Meanwhile increasingly open waters and snow-free lands absorb more sunlight. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle of continued melting even during cooler times. It bodes poorly for recovery or stability in the far north.
No one is more amazed at the staggering rate of change than the scientists observing it. Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and co-author of the Report Card (also principle investigator of the icebreaker cruise I tagged along on in the Arctic Ocean in October: see my Arctic Ocean Diaries)—tells me:
‘It is mind-boggling how quickly the Arctic system is changing and how unstable it appears to be. It is clear that there are strong, disturbing trends, but it is also evident how complex the system is and hence how hard it is to predict what all the consequences will be. In some ways I feel that the scientific community simply can’t respond quickly enough to sort all these issues out.’
Spikes in global sea levels can be directly attributed to melting polar ice; all of that water has to go somewhere, and it is filing the world;s oceans at an alarming rate.
Not even counting the newly discovered melting in Antarctica or 2012′s record ice loss in the Arctic, polar melting has accounted for half-an-inch of sea level rise in just the last 20 years, one-fifth of the overall rise in sea level recorded over that time.
Melting of polar ice sheets has added 11mm to global sea levels over the past two decades, according to the most definitive assessment so far.
More than 20 polar research teams have combined forces to produce estimates of the state of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica in a paper in Science.
Until now different measurement means have produced a wide range of estimates with large uncertainties.
But sea-level rise is now among the most pressing questions of our time.
Polar ice has a tremendous capacity to cause massive rises – with huge potential impacts on coastal cities and communities around the world.
But the remoteness and sheer size of the ice sheets mean accurate measurements are a serious challenge even for satellites which have to distinguish snow from ice, and the rise of the land from the shrinking of the ice.
How much damage can half-an-inch of higher seas actually do? Quite a lot. A final cost total for destruction from Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm that hit the U.S. East Coast in October and causing coastal devastation at least partially blamed on rising sea levels, is estimated at more than $80 billion as Congress tries to figure out how to pay for disaster relief.
Superstorm Sandy claimed more than 100 lives in the United States. But the death toll linked to climate change is far greater in poor and developing nations that can arguably be described as the world’s most underreported tragedy.
Although undeveloped nations account for nothing more than blip in the global tally of carbon emitting countries, they have borne the brunt of the growing casualty list linked to climate change.
One report estimates that as many as 5 million people around the world died from global warming-related factors and fossil fuels in 2010 alone. Many of the deaths were attributed to disasters linked to rising sea levels caused by the mounting polar ice los in places like West Antarctica.
A report released earlier this year from the climate change watch group DARA estimates that the deaths related to climate change and its chief driver, fossil fuels, were roughly 5 million in 2010. That number makes climate change one of the leading causes of death in the world; for comparison, cancer causes about 7.6 million deaths per year.
These deaths are caused by a variety of factors related to climate and carbon. A changing climate not only makes agriculture less productive in many areas of the world, decreasing access to food, but also leads to greater food spoilage from heat; these effects alone lead to diarrheal illnesses and hunger that caused around 310,000 deaths in 2010. Heat and cold illnesses, malarial and vector-borne diseases, meningitis and environmental disasters account for the rest of the almost 700,000 deaths attributable to these direct climate impacts. Pollution, indoor smoke, and occupational hazards related to the carbon economy cause the rest of those 5 million deaths through ailments like skin and lung cancer.
The vast majority of these impacts are felt in developing countries — those areas least prepared to deal with climate change. A whopping 90% of the mortality identified in the report comes from developing countries. China and India top the list for climate and carbon-related fatalities, at 1.5 and 1 million deaths in 2010, respectively. The majority of those deaths were a result of pollution from the carbon economy, highlighting the need to switch to cleaner fuels in these regions, and for more stringent pollution standards.