Deep ocean heat is rapidly melting Antarctic ice

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"Deep ocean heat is rapidly melting Antarctic ice"

Oceanographer at AGU: Western Antarctic Peninsula is seeing “the highest increase in temperatures of anywhere on Earth.”

WAIS AGU

“Warm waters carried by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current are brushing the ice front in the western part of the continent, in the area of the Bellingshausen Sea.” [Click to enlarge.]

Antarctica is disintegrating much faster than almost anybody imagined — see “Nothing in the natural world is lost at an accelerating exponential rate like this glacier.” In 2001, the IPCC “consensus” said neither Greenland nor Antarctica would lose significant mass by 2100. They both already are.  As Penn State climatologist Richard Alley said in March 2006, the ice sheets appear to be shrinking “100 years ahead of schedule.”

A presentation Monday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union sheds some light on the underlying cause of this rapid melt — the ice is being attacked from the bottom.  Discovery News has the story:

Global warming is sneaky. For more than a century it has been hiding large amounts of excess heat in the world’s deep seas. Now that heat is coming to the surface again in one of the worst possible places: Antarctica.

New analyses of the heat content of the waters off Western Antarctic Peninsula are now showing a clear and exponential increase in warming waters undermining the sea ice, raising air temperatures, melting glaciers and wiping out entire penguin colonies.

“In the area I work there is the highest increase in temperatures of anywhere on Earth,” said physical oceanographer Doug Martinson of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Martinson has been collecting ocean water heat content data for more than 18 years at Palmer Island, on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula.

“Eighty-seven percent of the alpine glaciers are in retreat,” said Martinson of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. “Some of the Adele penguin colonies have already gone extinct.”

Martinson and his colleagues looked not only at their very detailed and mapped water heat data from the last two decades, but compared them with sketchier data from the past and deep ocean heat content measurements worldwide. All show the same rising trend that is being seen in Antarctica.

“When I saw that my jaw just dropped,” said Martinson. The most dramatic rise has happened since 1960, he said.

The figure comes from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (via Columbia University’s Earth Institute blog), which quotes Martinson explaining, “This is like a huge freight of hot coals-fresh, hot water being delivered right to the the front door.”

So while global warming has continued its fitful warming of the temperature on Earth’s surface, the planet is warming from human-cause greenhouse gases  just where climate science said it would “” the oceans, which is where more than 90% of the warming was projected to end up (as we learned in two key 2009 papers, see “Skeptical Science explains how we know global warming is happening.“). The key findings in the second study are summed up in these two figures:


Total Earth Heat Content from 1950 to 2003 (Murphy 2009).

Time series of global mean heat storage (0-2000 m), measured in 108 Jm-2

This new finding makes action now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions all the more important because we’re already stuck with more melting to come:

What the rising water heat means, he said, is that even if humanity got organized and soon stopped emitting greenhouse gases, there is already too much heat in the oceans to stop a lot of impacts — like the melting of a huge amount of Antarctic ice.

“There’s the potential that we’re locked into long term sea level rise for a long time,” Martinson told Discovery News….

As for how fast the ice will melt and in what locations, that depends largely on whether the upwelling warm water comes in contact with the thick ice shelf that crowds the coast and holds the block the glaciers from reaching the sea.

That, in turn, depends on the winds which drive away the surface waters and make it possible for the deeper waters to rise to the surface, said senior researcher Robert Bindschadler of NASA’s Goddard Earth Science and Technology Center and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

“It can destroy the ice shelf if that heat can get to it,” said Bindschadler, who at the same meeting presented his work from the melting Pine Island Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

Now that the upwelling deep sea water is the clear cause of the melting ice shelf, rather than summer melt water, as had been thought in the past, it’s a question of how winds will change in a warming world and whether they will drive more warm water into the ice shelves.

The warming of West Antarctica is most worrisome (at least for this century) because it’s going to disintegrate long before the East Antarctic Ice Sheet does.  Not only is the WAIS melting from underneath, it is, as I wrote in the “high water” part of my book, inherently less stable:

Perhaps the most important, and worrisome, fact about the WAIS is that it is fundamentally far less stable than the Greenland ice sheet because most of it is grounded far below sea level. The WAIS rests on bedrock as deep as two kilometers underwater. One 2004 NASA-led study found that most of the glaciers they were studying “flow into floating ice shelves over bedrock up to hundreds of meters deeper than previous estimates, providing exit routes for ice from further inland if ice-sheet collapse is under way.” A 2002 study in Science examined the underwater grounding lines-the points where the ice starts floating. Using satellites, the researchers determined that “bottom melt rates experienced by large outlet glaciers near their grounding lines are far higher than generally assumed.” And that melt rate is positively correlated with ocean temperature.

The warmer it gets, the more unstable WAIS outlet glaciers will become. Since so much of the ice sheet is grounded underwater, rising sea levels may have the effect of lifting the sheets, allowing more-and increasingly warmer-water underneath it, leading to further bottom melting, more ice shelf disintegration, accelerated glacial flow, and further sea level rise, and so on and on, another vicious cycle. The combination of global warming and accelerating sea level rise from Greenland could be the trigger for catastrophic collapse in the WAIS (see, for instance, here).

The time to act was a while ago, but now is far better than later.

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57 Responses to Deep ocean heat is rapidly melting Antarctic ice

  1. toby says:

    It got missed with the McShane-Wyner publication, but a forthcoming paper by some Steve McIntyre associates has got a welcome response on climate science blogs. The paper deals with Antarctic warming (hence the connection with this topic) and seems to add to the work of Eric Steig and others. For example, it confirms the West Antarctic warming. Though, McIntyre & Co. are touting it as a refutation, what has been seen is not being read as such.

    http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2010/12/a-brief-history-of-knowledge-about-antarctic-temperatures/

    http://rabett.blogspot.com/

  2. Mimikatz says:

    Things are getting pretty scary, between this paper and the previous one on glacier melting.

  3. Prokaryotes says:

    This finding ought to be a game changer.

  4. Prokaryotes says:

    Changes recorded in the climate of Greenland at the end of the Younger Dryas, as measured by ice-cores, imply a sudden warming of +10°C within a timescale of a few years.[5] Other abrupt changes are the +4 °C on Greenland 11,270 years ago[6] or the abrupt +6 °C warming 22 000 years ago on Antarctica.[7] By contrast, the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum may have initiated anywhere between a few decades and several thousand years. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abrupt_climate_change

  5. Prokaryotes says:

    Methane May Be Building Under Antarctic Ice
    http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/03/antarctic-methane-lakes/

    Antarctic melt is speeding methane release.
    On a recent trip to the Antarctic Peninsula, Argentine geologist Dr. Rodolfo del Valle witnessed continuous bubbling under certain areas of the water’s surface. Measurements revealed that the bubbles were 99% methane gas.

    With ice shelves in Western Antarctica and the Peninsula already noted to be melting due to climate change, the additional release of methane could, due to its potency, accelerate global warming beyond what scientists have described as an irreversible tipping point, leading then to immense Earth changes.

    Dr. del Valle is now working to determine the potential impact of this greenhouse gas as he stated, “We believe there is a huge amount of destabilized methane deposits that may leak into the atmosphere and ramp up warming.” http://suprememastertv.com/bbs/board.php?bo_table=sos&sca=sos_3&url=&wr_id=1752

  6. From Peru says:

    But this deep ocean warming was observed in all the Southern Ocean or just in the Antarctic Peninsula?

    If is just in the Antarctic Peninsula, it will be no surprise, since this one of the fastest warming places on Earth.

    A more widespread warming, for example along the entire WAIS, would be more worrying.

  7. Wit's End says:

    Did I read…”clear and exponential increase…”?

    David Suzuki on exponential growth:

    http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/testtube

    found here:

    http://lougold.blogspot.com/2010/12/challenge-to-andrew-revkin-and-readers.html

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    “But this deep ocean warming was observed in all the Southern Ocean or just in the Antarctic Peninsula?”

    2002
    Warming of the Southern Ocean Since the 1950s
    http://www.sciencemag.org/content/295/5558/1275.full

    2010
    Warming in Deep Southern Ocean Linked to Sea-Level Rise

    Warming waters in the deepest parts of the ocean surrounding Antarctica have contributed to sea-level rise over the past two decades, scientists report today (Sept. 20).

    In an attempt to pinpoint all culprits for the rising oceans, scientists analzyed warming trends in the abyssal ocean — below about 3,300 feet (1,000 meters), said study team member and oceanographer Sarah Purkey of the University of Washington in Seattle.

    The scientists found that the strongest deep warming occurred in the water around Antarctica, and the warming lessens as it spreads around the globe. The temperature increases are small — about 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit (0.03 degrees Celsius) per decade in the deep Southern Ocean, and less elsewhere. But the large volume of the ocean over which they are found and the high capacity of water to absorb heat means that this warming accounts for a huge amount of energy storage.
    http://www.livescience.com/environment/global-warming-southern-ocean-sea-level-rise-100920.html

    Though the recent finding might show acceleration and spreading i guess.

  9. Colorado Bob says:

    Prokaryotes @ 5

    This would be the first report I’ve seen of this in Antarctica .

    This bares repeating :

    ‎” ……. the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times”

    http://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/comment.html?entrynum=1710#commenttop

    Does this ever happened in the models ? Because it’s happening in nature.

  10. Michael Tucker says:

    “The time to act was a while ago, but now is far better than later.”

    YES, yes, yes a thousand times YES!

    But what we are getting from our leaders is “kick-the-can” down the road to much, much later we go!

    Sorry, ALL WE HAVE IS LATER.

    No action now and no mention of how much later it will be. Does anyone seriously think it will happen with a Republican House and a broken Senate? Does anyone think it will happen before 2012? How about 2020?

    Manhattan sized icebergs will not get anyone’s attention other than the converted.

  11. sidd says:

    From Peru wrote on December 15, 2010 at 4:06 pm:
    But this deep ocean warming was observed in all the Southern Ocean or just in the Antarctic Peninsula?

    the image shows transects at 3 different longitudes, labelled P19 S2 and I6. The warming is not confined to the Antactic Peninsula.

  12. Solar Jim says:

    It almost seems the future has already passed, and so have we.

    So let’s see: Warming is destabilizing the atmosphere. Yet, vastly more heat is in the oceans now from humanity’s carbonic acid gas emissions and resulting radiative forcing. That water heat provides powerful melting of polar cap ice shelves. This will help raise sea level by releasing land-based glaciers. Then the submerged WAIS will be heated and floated by rising warmer waters which will release methane (thanks Prokaryotes) capped by it from a past geologic age, sending the planet into some type of Day After Tomorrow response, including catastrophic coastal flooding.

    All due to the fraud (the usual arrogance, ignorance and greed) of defining fluid or solid carbon from the lithosphere as “energy.” Well, we are about to see some planet scale energy orchestrated indirectly by us through the immense power of the sun. Truly economic meltdown, making today’s troubles seem the proverbial walk in the park (if this scenario comes to pass).

    Thanks to the scientists for the information. We could have used more of it last century (like Hansen c. 1988). Coastal residents should keep a boat handy. The future looks wet (except for drought and expanding deserts).

  13. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #3: Except that the only thing really new here is the specific calculation of the rate of warming. Everything else has been known for a while now and has gotten little attention.

    This is one of the fundamental changes to the ocean-atmosphere circulation I’ve been bugging Joe to pay attention to and connect the dots on rather than just cover the components as they get attention. Note that the acceleration of the ACC is being driven by the southern migration of winds that are in turn a consequence of the warming-driven expansion of the tropics. IIRC this is probably why the deep oceans were recently discovered to have picked up far more heat than had been supposed. (Note that the same mechanism is key to the transitions into and out of the glacials.) A related effect is the observed leakage of the warm Agulhas Current from the Indian Ocean into the South Atlantic, known to have been the case in the mid-Pliocene, which if it continues will screw up the north-south circulation of the Atlantic. Also, the Southern Ocean is a very large CO2 sink, another reason why continued warming there is a very bad thing. What goes down, must come up.

    Re #6: It’s the whole ACC, FP. As the winds accelerating it continue to be forced southward, it’s starting to push the warm, deep ACC water up onto the continental shelf. The shelf edge being uneven, the most northerly bit is what will get hit first, as we see. Given continued warming and sufficient time, the entire shelf will be warmed. Unfortunately, there’s no very good idea as to how quickly that process and the concomitant melting will proceed. Paleoclimate is a good guide for this since we are pushing on the climate system much harder than natural influences could. Most worrisome are the potential positive feedbacks that wouldn’t be a problem if things were proceeding more slowly. That distant sound we hear is Wally’s beast sharpening its fangs.

  14. Steve Bloom says:

    That should be that paleoclimate is *not* a good guide.

  15. Nick says:

    Toby @#1,it as usual sad and unsurprising to see McIntyre posturing on the new paper,which is simply attempting to filter a little information from the same limited data that Steig 2009 used. Result? A slightly differing distribution of significant warming. A refutation? He could have trumpeted ‘refinement’ more convincingly,if he needed to trumpet at all….

  16. Prokaryotes says:

    Solar Jim said “It almost seems the future has already passed, and so have we.”

    The winter means brutal cold and snow amounts and a lot of ice. The summer brings prolonged forest fires and killer heatwaves and crop crippling droughts. In between you have unprecedented flood events and storms. Which will all get worse. If people decide to wait it out we are doomed, because climate change won’t stop.
    If people decide to just reduce their carbon footprint, we are doomed, because climate change won’t stop.
    People need to reuce carbon foot prints and suck carbon back out of the air.

    In reality people are still allowed to spread disinformation and explore the dirtiest resources.

    So, yes the human future has passed, judging from current state. Later people will say, far to little far to late and soon civilization will collapse and means to do something will be rendered impossible. Main reason lack of accountability and lack of change.

    Gaia: Enjoy it While You Can http://www.corporateknights.ca/article/gaia-enjoy-it-while-you-can

  17. Sasparilla says:

    Couldn’t we just cut a break once in a while? The ongoing nightmare of everything unfolding a half century or century earlier than anticipated continues…this is such a horror when faced with the non responsive government we have here in the US – which means the world, since we’ll hold back progress.

    Thank you for posting this Joe and the comments everyone, Steve #13 excellent thoughts on the winds and the currents around South Africa – I’m a little familiar with the Agulhas current (its so warm you have tropical species like tiger sharks etc. way way below the latitude they should be on one side of Africa while at the same latitude on the other side of Africa you have chinstrap penguins I think and near freezing water). It would be a total nightmare for that current to start moving south and warming the southern waters – I hope we don’t go there…

  18. Ian says:

    Hey everyone,
    I’m a daily reader of CP and many other climate/energy related websites and I’ve posted here a few times in the past.

    This is probably a totally inappropriate place to be posting this question: what the heck should I be doing right now?

    It seems like every day there is a new study confirming massive climate disruptions and none of our elected leaders care at all about this or peak energy issues which are also a giant problem for civilization.

    I’m in my mid-twenties and it seems certain that the next 10-15 years (possibly sooner) will be very turbulent and its even harder to predict what will happen after that. I am not hopeless or depressed to a dangerous degree. But I want to be very realistic about what my options are moving forward in my life. Again, I’m not hopeless, but realistically it seems pointless to pursue changing the status quo in our world government.

    I live in a city so I am fully reliant upon our industrial civilization. It seems smart for me to secure alternative sources of water, food and shelter, which would require moving somewhere else entirely and completely changing my life.

    However, I feel like if I do this I am “giving up” on our world and will just be biding my time until the crumbling of civilization catches up with me.

    Further, none of my family/friends have any clue about what’s going on and I feel a deep responsibility to help and inform them. I feel like I have to sit down with everyone that I care about and tell them the truth about our world.

    Again, I’m not making any snap decisions or being reactionary. I’ve been following this issue for a while and its taken me a long time to get to this stage. I am familiar with all of the standard answers when people ask, “what should I do to help the environment?” “Recycle, buy a different car, write your senator/congressman, keep hoping everyone will change.” I have done these things and it is very clear that they are insufficient.

    I’m asking for insights into my realistic options for the near future. I know this is a huge question to be asking but it is very hard to find good opinions about this.

    I do apologize for this being so off-topic but I would really appreciate help from any of you CP readers. I know many of you are extremely informed and concerned about what’s going on so I greatly value what you all have to say.

    Thanks very much for your time. Take care.

    -Ian

    PS – If anyone is interested in contacting me via email that is also appreciated: tidal1@live.com

  19. Steve Bloom says:

    Re the Agulhas Current, here’s an article describing how it recently became the principal focus of oceanographers, and here’s a paper showing why. The abstract:

    Future projections of climate suggest our planet is moving into a ‘super-interglacial’. Here we report a global synthesis of ice, marine and terrestrial data from a recent palaeoclimate equivalent, the Last Interglacial (ca. 130–116 ka ago). Our analysis suggests global temperatures were on average ~1.5C higher than today (relative to the AD 1961–1990 period). Intriguingly, we identify several Indian Ocean Last Interglacial sequences that suggest persistent early warming, consistent with leakage of warm, saline waters from the Agulhas Current into the Atlantic, intensifying the meridional ocean circulation (AMOC) and increasing global temperatures. This mechanism may have played a significant positive feedback role during super-interglacials and could become increasingly important in the future. These results provide an important insight into a future 2C climate stabilisation scenario.

    As this paper describes, in the even warmer mid-Pliocene (Piacenzian) ~3.3 million years ago (and probably the best indicator of where current climate is headed), the far North Atlantic and adjacent areas of the Arctic Ocean warmed exceptionally, just as we would expect from an acceleration of the AMOC. There no longer seems to be much prospect of it slowing, as people used to worry. The conclusion:

    In this study, the first quantitative mid-Piacenzian SST estimates
    for the subpolar North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans show good agreement between proxies, and, when combined with numerous qualitative measures of temperature, refine previous estimates indicating much warmer than modern temperatures and at least seasonally ice-free conditions in the Nordic Seas and nearby Arctic Ocean. Updating the PRISM SST reconstruction with this new data yields a very different pattern of heat distribution than at present with much warmer waters in the high latitudes during the mid-Piacenzian. In addition, these new multi-proxy data extend the reduced SST gradient into the climatically sensitive areas of the subpolar North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, confirming the previously established gradient based on faunal assemblage data in which temperature anomalies increase with latitude. Finally, these new data imply a major mid-Piacenzian reduction in sea ice similar to what has been observed in recent summers, strengthening the idea that the anomalous sea ice melting we have observed in the Arctic Ocean in recent years may be an early warning for significant global warming.

    See the striking map on page 7. The similarly sharp but less extensive warming shown for the California coast is because we will be exchanging our present cold upwelling current for a warm one. Just think, it’ll be even more like the Mediterranean coast — as in Libya.

  20. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #17: Just to be clear, it’s already happening.

  21. paulm says:

    Love to hear what Hansen has to say on this in respect to the earths energy balance….

    A lot of us here know that the situation is dire….
    . sea level will rise by around 2m in around the next century or so. We could even see some spectacular ice sheet disintegration by 2025.
    . precipitation (rain/snow) is already crippling and and will continue to increase its frequency, intensity and affect wider areas. Critically affecting property, food supply & prices.
    . ocean acidification and sea temps are already wiping out coral reefs and fisheries. This will start to accelerate even more.
    . massive storms are starting to cripple communities because of their frequencies which seems to be around 3-10yrs now. Also the size of these events are affecting larger regions.

    Basically global civil society is going to collapse in the next 3-10yrs. Mainly due to food shortages. Leaders should start to seriously plan for this disruption. They dont appear to be, hopefully someone is.

    I would be interesting to see what the militaries of developed and large nations are planning. I am sure they are not letting the cat out the bag just yet.

    What every they admit to you can bet that they think its going to be much worse.

  22. Michael says:

    Prokaryotes (#8) -

    It is also worth noting that (from second link) the deep ocean heat uptake is offsetting a rise in atmospheric temperature of 3 degrees C per decade, or 15 times the actual atmospheric warming, which gives one an idea of how much heat we are talking about.

  23. Richard Brenne says:

    Ian (#18), thank you for such a beautifully written, sincere and heartfelt post, including your question. I think you’re doing all the right things, in chronological and also order of importance:

    1) UNDERSTAND. Read Climate Progress, try to synthesize these issues, understand them, and get your thinking around as much of them as you can. Become a legendary CP commenter (you’re on your way with this one!) like Gail Zawacki at Wit’s End, Mike Roddy, Leif Knutsen, Lou Grinzo, Jeff Huggins, Prokaryotes, Colorado Bob, Richard Pauli, Paulm, Sailesh Rao, Edward Hummel and many others, and read all of their comments you can, including going back over any CP post where they comment.

    2) EDUCATE. Write, blog, speak, tell everyone about this stuff who will listen. Don’t burn any bridges, especially with your family. Take conversations as far as they’ll go and then remain friends, sometimes agreeing to disagree, and in certain cases with certain family members, not bringing it up again until they’re ready.

    3) ACT. In addition to driving a Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf or Toyota Prius if you can afford them and afford to power them with solar panels (otherwise you’re driving a half-coal car, because the U.S. and world generates about half their electricity from coal), consider living where there is enough density that you can walk, bike or take public transportation (in that order) as much as possible. I never owned a car up to when I was your age, and for a half-dozen of those years I lived in L.A.

    Living in density and as close to work and shopping as possible does more than living off the grid in a stand-alone house where you have to drive most places, and for most young people it’s more realistic and pleasurable also.

    One way to look at our predicament is that the richest billion or so have wanted to live like kings, queens or emperors – actually beyond any pre-20th Century royalty in access to food, travel, communication and entertainment – and we’ve outgrown Earth’s carrying capacity in doing so. The key to that consumption is large, stand-alone houses that require driving long distances.

    You don’t have to live like a monk, but you can live like Rembrandt in Amsterdam, Franklin in Philadelphia, Mozart in Vienna, Dickens in London, Lincoln in Springfield, and the Impressionists in Paris (my favorites are Rich Little and Darrell Hammond) – each seemed to have a good life and they each contributed a lot to the world without having to live like royalty in the greatest seclusion they could afford.

    Become an activist and team up with other activists, including those you find here at CP. Live a purpose-driven life in this way.

    Whatever your belief system, consider what role spirituality plays in all of this. I think our wanting to grow everything material we can including our number of descendents and thus overpopulation, status and thus egos and thus overconsumption is all because we’re mostly spiritually bankrupt and this is all gross materialism run amok.

    When I look at all of this I see no answers in matter – maybe they’re available to us in spirit. I include and agree with many atheists in this quest. Only about 1 per cent of the world’s population are atheists, but to me they do a disproportionate amount of good, including many if not most of the world’s best scientists.

    So by spirituality I mean the genuine spiritual teachings of the most noble, impressive and demonstrative (if you can heal you must understand things most of the rest of us don’t) Bible characters and those in all other spiritual traditions.

    I don’t necessarily mean religious denominations or churches per se, which are often bastions of dogma, although the good in many of the most progressive, caring and smaller denominations (they often begin with a “U” or “Christian”) are at least worthy of sincere examination – immediately, completely and forever discounting all religions without examination is just as dogmatic as the worst in religion itself.

    Band together with those who share your incredibly profound sincerity and questioning, first maybe over the internet, but ultimately and as soon as possible in person. See if you can find a life-partner who shares your concerns.

    Do everything in line with where things might end up. In my story an intrepid group of elders from CP, science, philosophy and spirituality band together to live in peace while writing the story of how we got here. They draw from up and down the West Coast and end up in the fjords of British Columbia. So instead of taking flying or other extravagant vacations, all my vacation and travel time is spent on trains, bikes and boats heading in this direction. My daughter even goes to college on a fjord in British Columbia and is talking to sailors and fishers about how we can live sustainably in sailboats come what may.

    So see where things might end up and where you’d like to end up and then work in as straight a line as possible to get there.

    Maybe life is like the movie Groundhog Day and we’re here (or somewhere like here) until we get it right. I wouldn’t necessarily hang out with the likes of the Koch Brothers, cause they might be here (or somewhere hotter) for any number of lifetimes until they get it.

  24. David says:

    @18 Ian

    I used to be in exactly the same position as you. I think I have found the answer, young ones like us reading this website and theoildrum etc. need only stay alive and reproduce. Figuring out where and how to do so will the be the great contribution of our generation.

  25. Robert says:

    Pardon my ignorance, but I constantly see the terms ice sheet collapse and/or disintegration in reference to the situation unfolding in Greenland and Antarctica. What I am interested in is, how will it occur, what will it look like, how long before we see major events occuring and will there be signs like massive fractures opening up in the icesheets themselves, massive icequakes or maybe just slow melting drop by drop?

  26. Roger says:

    Richard (#23), nice job answering Ian. I was going to try to do this if no one else did, but you’re a tough act to follow, and it grows late.

    I’ll just add my two cents: Ian, you’ve got a lot of company in terms of wondering what one should be doing. My wife and I ask ourselves that question all the time, feeling as if we live in two worlds.

    In case you’d like to keep the conversation going (since it’s a moving target), I’ll send you a note later and perhaps we can go from there.

    Cheers,

    Roger

  27. Mike Roddy says:

    Ian, many of us here are somewhere between concerned and obsessed on this subject. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to come up with action items that either have worked or are likely to in the future. Small, cumulative actions help, but a grand strategy to win this critical war has yet to be developed.

    You are a smart man. Go within yourself and access your creativity to find a way to express your concern in a constructive way. Then, whatever idea you come up with will come from somewhere a little deeper, and will have a better chance to succeed.

  28. h20_nh says:

    So does this impact current sea level rise estimates of ~5-6 ft by 2100?

  29. mauri pelto says:

    Nice portrait of the danger of the warmer ocean water. The Discovery article has one misnomer, “Now that the upwelling deep sea water is the clear cause of the melting ice shelf, rather than summer melt water, as had been thought in the past”. The Larsen Ice Shelf did experience surface ice melt and that did have a role in the breakup and the media became fixated on this one mechanism. However, back in the 1980′s and right up to the present, the concern has been basal melt of the primary WAIS ice shelves such as Pine Island Glacier, where surface melt is non-existent, and then the associated glacier acceleration, not surface melt. This was discussed at length at a conference on Fast Glacier Flow in 1985 in Whistler BC, with Bindshadler, Zwally, and Bentley making this observation. Today Fleming Glacier is an example of the acceleration after an ice shelf was lost without appreciable surface melt. This issue of basal melt can also be an issue in northern Greenland even though surface melt does have a role, for Petermann Glacier as observed by Johnson et al (2010)and potentially Ryder Glacier

  30. BillD says:

    Yes, the specific question of seal level rise as WAIS is lost is my queston as well. From what I have read, this is not “sea ice” and is supported by rock, although the rock is undersea. What is the volume of this vulnerable glacier and how much could it, by itself, contribute to sea level rise?

  31. DrD says:

    Richard Brenne: Thank you. This site, with its science-based arguments and heart-felt posts like yours and Ian’s, is ususally the high-point of my day and today’s offerings are stellar examples. I’m not convinced the Titanic isn’t doomed, but going down will be easier to bear with you and Ian and others playing in the band.
    Thanks again.

  32. Prokaryotes says:

    BillD said “how much could it, by itself, contribute to sea level rise?”

    187 feet according to this 2 year old video, which states this would take thousand of years, which we learned seems to be at least 1 magnitude off.

    Antarctica Glacier Melting faster than usual http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RKHPTrkHpY

    “The WAIS rests on bedrock as deep as two kilometers underwater. One 2004 NASA-led study found that most of the glaciers they were studying “flow into floating ice shelves over bedrock up to hundreds of meters deeper than previous estimates, providing exit routes for ice from further inland if ice-sheet collapse is under way.”

    The warmer it gets, the more unstable WAIS outlet glaciers will become. Since so much of the ice sheet is grounded underwater, rising sea levels may have the effect of lifting the sheets, allowing more-and increasingly warmer-water underneath it, leading to further bottom melting, more ice shelf disintegration, accelerated glacial flow, and further sea level rise, and so on and on, another vicious cycle. The combination of global warming and accelerating sea level rise from Greenland could be the trigger for catastrophic collapse in the WAIS”

    The WAIS will melt much more rapidly than the rest of antarctica.

  33. John McCormick says:

    RE # 27

    Mike, you said: “but a grand strategy to win this critical war has yet to be developed.”

    I have been harping on a grander strategy for months and it doesn’t seem to be getting any traction.

    The sponsors and contributors to this blog (including John Podesta) have tremendous influence and respect in this town and beyond the realm of climate change.

    I can see them waging an initially silent campaign to enlist the likes of Warren Buffet, George Schultz, Colin Powell to undermine the support of Faux noise while they broaden their message directed at the loudest opponent in the Congress.

    Senator Inhofe calls EPA Admin Lisa Jackson his favorite bureaucrat..not because he backs her decisions but they have obviously found some common theme. He is not invincible. And, he can move the Congressional debate with just a few statements about his concern for Oklahoma ranchers and farmers and the Ogallalah aquifer. We just haven’t taken the time to think through a grand strategy such as this and it might be right in front of us.

    I have belittled the man on some of my comments and that was my cheap shooting for the thrill of it. End of the day…he is in charge of Ian’s future and that young man cannot sway the Senator. Rather, the Senator’s peer group of powerful people should make it their life’s work to get him to break.

    John Podesta are you reading this?

    John McCormick

  34. Bob Doublin says:

    #21 Don’t forget that your phrase “serious planning” also includes what the Koch brothers and other super-rich sociopaths have been doing for the last few decades-it doesn’t just mean trying to mitigate the results and help the victims. Remember that phrase “corner the market”? It’s been obvious to me for over 5 years now just how far some people are willing to go to do precisely that.
    Derrick Jensen and numerous other writers aren’t just using a metaphor when they talk about this culture being sociopathic.

  35. mauri pelto says:

    Since Palmer Station is part of the focus of the article, it is interesting to note the formation of a new island just north, within view, of Palmer Station, Amsler Island

  36. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Based on current CO2 levels the WAIS is already doomed, but we do not really know how soon it will collapse or how quickly. Mercer (1978 I think) does not look at all outrageous now.

  37. Angel B. Pal says:

    u r G E M nature systems
    http://www.urworldindustry.com

    Climate Change is now altering the way of life for so many;
    and coming fast, eventually for everyone with no exception.

    An alternative is to go into nuclear power which is very dangerous
    and presents a lot of unpredictability to fully safeguard said technology.
    Known technologies on renewable resources which are clean and abundant
    are still in a comparatively infancy stage versus the matured fossil fuels industry.

    There is lingering anxiety that Energy STORAGE PROBLEM which begets various difficult challenges for renewable energy WILL NOT BE SOLVED satisfactorily in the foreseeable future; if ever.

    This means that known renewable energy techs
    are not yet considered as the practical defining answer to Climate Change;
    perhaps it is the prime reason why
    humanity remains divided as to its conclusive prosecution.

    Renewable experts, players in fossil fuels industry
    and politicians know this dilemma as a matter of reality;
    are green advocates aware?

    Presently, renewable resources are harnessed for their energy to produce electricity
    (normally for additional power requirement)
    not to retire /convert fossil-run power plants.

    Sadly, this means that existing-fossil-powered electric plants
    will stay to govern economic activities for a long time.

    Worse, new fossil-based power plants remain to be planned or are being deployed. This will definitely result to the feared undesirable temperature increase worldwide.

    Meanwhile : Global emissions targets will lead to 4C temperature rise, say studies and Don’t consign us to history, plead island states at Cancún COP16. The worst fear
    of the citizens of these countries will engulf them, surely.

    Will the efforts of Green Advocates /Volunteers /Enlightened families be in vain; futile?

    Developed and fast-developing countries which can do much to address Climate Change are therefore obviously hesitant to tackle the challenges for fear of dislocations in their economies.

    These countries dread the high costs
    and uncertainties of transformation from fossil fuels to renewable energies,
    despite the projected gargantuan costs of adaptation /mitigation
    and the unimaginable sufferings coupled with
    expected increasing loss of lives
    that Climate Change brings.

    DO WE HAVE TO WAIT for that level of Climate Change
    when politicians and/or fossil fuels stakeholders are forced
    by the Acts of Nature to forgo their hesitancy to the cries of green advocates?

    IT MIGHT BE TOO LATE by then! We do not have much time.

    “In dealing with climate change we should not merely focus on imposing mitigation targets on countries, rather we should focus on addressing the root cause of climate change,” he said.
    “And we all know that our heavy dependence on fossil fuels is the major cause.”
    [ excerpt from Lord Stern Charts A ‘Green’ Industrial Revolution by Stacey Feldman ]

    Followers /Readers /Subscribers of Climate Progress
    are invited to consider u r G E M nature systems amidst this grim
    and other like scientific reports.

    This offers a technology that satisfactorily provides
    the ENERGY STORAGE FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY TECHS
    as one of its many very important and life-saving green features.

    For more interesting information, please visit http://www.urworldindustry.com

    Many Thanks To All the people of Climate Progress.

  38. George Ennis says:

    I was just catching the a Canadian weather report today. They were reporting that the ice was melting. Nothing remarkable about that, well except for the fact that it was in Iqaluit, Nunavut. OMG that temperature anomaly is almost beyond comprehension.

    Imagine if the temperature in Chicago or Milwaukee today was in the high 70s fahrenheit, that’s how much the anomaly is.

  39. Ian says:

    Wow. Thank you to everyone for their responses and for the emails I received. Like I said, its very difficult for me to discuss this with my friends and family, so it means a lot to have so many people offering their support.

    It seems like many of you are grappling constantly with these questions. I know its an ongoing process and I know there aren’t any definite answers, but I feel like I have a clearer picture of what I should be doing.

    It’s really sad to think our efforts to prevent environmental destruction will be in vain. But, I don’t think we should ever give up or stop caring. At least we’ll be doing what’s right.

    Thanks very much everyone. I really appreciate it.

    -Ian

  40. Wit's End says:

    Hi Ian. I look at learning about climate change as receiving a diagnosis of cancer, which will probably although not definitely be fatal. How to react to that? You could decide to ignore the recommended treatment, or to live a depraved life, or you could decide to fight as hard as you can to avert what is likely inevitable.

    On a purely practical level, I think if I were young I would prepare. Join the transition town movement and find a community of like-minded individuals, because you will need to be part of a group. Cultivate an attitude of quiet determination as opposed to despair or fear. Keep a sense of humor alive, even if it’s gallows humor, be the best person you can and don’t be too hard on yourself.

    I wish my daughters, who are in your age bracket, would prepare but they seem to have decided to live as if nothing will ever change, even though they know better.

  41. Here’s a video about self provisioning that Ian might find helpful.
    http://growthisnotsustainable.blogspot.com/2010/08/culturenet.html

  42. J Bowers says:

    @ 38 George Ennis

    Yep. Weather Underground shows Iqaluit at +17C above average. It’s beaten the record so far today by 5C.

  43. Tom Bennion says:

    Ian’s experience suggests a personal ‘intervention’ approach might be useful.

    Imagine if you were attempting to explain to family, friends etc the gravity of the current situation and you were able to arrange for people from around the world to send personalized emails respectfully setting out the issues. Has this or anything similar been tried anywhere?

  44. Lyn says:

    Dr. Dickson Despommier has published his finding in a book, Vertical Farming. Just got it and is better than I hoped. This man is trying to give us a huge solution that will begin reducing multiple carbon footprints. Vertical Farming is the ultimate “better mousetrap invention”. If it’s too late to be saved, while we’re either freezing or overheated, at least we can eat well. Please read my idea at wygreen.org.

  45. Ian says:

    Wit’s End: Thank you for the advice. Transition Towns are something I’ve looked into. I hope the best for you and your daughters.

    Tom: Personal appeals and one-on-one interactions seem like a really effective way to educate people about what’s going on. It might not be very efficient, but it seems like the best way to get someone to listen. I’ll be doing this with my family and friends in the near future. Hopefully they listen.

    Thanks again.

  46. Steve Bloom says:

    This AGU fall meeting abstract describes the very strong north-south circulation in the Atlantic during the Pliocene:

    Sediment Accumulation on Eirik Drift (Northern North Atlantic) during the Early Pliocene: Implications for a Strong, Stable Deep-Water Current System

    High-resolution seismics collected from Eirik Drift in the northern North Atlantic during cruise KN166-14 and drilling by IODP Exp 303 show that construction of Eirik Drift occurred largely during the Plio-Pleistocene. Lower Pliocene accumulation produced a series of seven large sediment buildups. These bedforms have the surface morphologic appearance of migrating mudwaves, but are muted expressions of buried drift crests. A model developed for these sediment buildups suggests that they formed under as a strong geostrophic flow laden with sediments that flowed across a sloping surface (Earley, 2006). It was estimated that it takes several 100,000 years to develop the sediment buildups of this size. Seismic stratigraphy provides some constraint on the ages of the sediment buildups. Two regional reflectors are identified in the study area and tied to ODP Site 646, revealing that the 7 sediment buildups developed between 5.6 and 2.7 Ma, and hint that they each is related to the long eccentricity forcing. Deposition changed to sheeted drift accumulation above these sediment buildups with deposition occurring at a deep location (~3400m) during interglacials; while it shoals to a shallower depth (~2200m) during glacial intervals. This pattern continued through the late Pliocene to Pleistocene. The Southern Ocean may hold the key to understanding the origin of these large sediment buildups on Eirik Drift during the early Pliocene. Biogenic sediments on Meteor Rise fluctuated between carbonate- and opal-rich during the late Miocene, responding to the orbital climate changes. Deposition was dominated by carbonate fluxes during the early Pliocene, indicating that the subantarctic region was warm and the southern polar front further south. We hypothesize that the polar front, and hence the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, was located at a latitude similar to the Drake Passage such that the maximum wind velocities resulted in high ACC velocities. This configuration results in high bottom flow originating the Southern Ocean requiring a compensating flow from the North Atlantic. Muted fluctuations in the lower Pliocene sediments on Meteor Rise as well as in almost oxygen isotope records indicate stability in the climate and deep water system. It is this stability that allowed the large sediment buildups to develop on Eirik Drift. It is also possible that the strong return flow from the North Atlantic produced a feedback that helped to lock in the warm stable early Pliocene climates. (emphasis added)

    So there we have it.

    Out of curiosity, does anyone else find this sort of material to be of interest? I’m not sure how to interpret the general lack of comments.

  47. David Lewis says:

    Dr. Joellen Russell gives a good explanation of what’s happening to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current – she was interviewed on The Science Show aired as a podcast from Oz http://www.abc.net.au/rn/scienceshow/stories/2010/3065125.htm There is a transcript there as well.

    The “hook” for the story was she wrote up a paper on the prospects for penguins in the area, but she is giving a vivid explanation in a few words on why the Antarctic Circumpolar Current is changing.

    She thinks this change in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) “is one of the most significant trends in the global climate system over the past 20 yr”. This phenomenon “caught geoscientists by surprise”, she says. (quote from one of her papers, Ocean Circulation in a warming climate, Toggweiler and Russell)

    Ozone depletion and global warming are working together to cause an intensifying “thermal contrast in the middle of the atmosphere”. The result is 20% more powerful Southern Westerlies which have shifted towards the South Pole by 6 degrees of latitude, “like a shrinking donut”. The intensification of these winds was “not predicted”.

    Because the new position of these now more powerful winds is more closely aligned with the land-free band of ocean all around Antarctica more energy is applied to drive a now more powerful Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This current was already four to five times more powerful than the Gulf Stream.

    Antarctica is the only place on the planet where water from the deep ocean wells upwards.

    One result will be increased mixing of the deep ocean with surface waters which may act as a bit of a brake on the average global surface temperature chart as more heat is conveyed into the deep ocean. That Sarah Purkey found heat moving into the deep ocean isn’t as significant as if the rate is increasing driven by what Russell is describing. Purkey found 16% of the heat going into the ocean was going into the deep ocean areas she studied, and she called for better data.

    Russell is a modeller: she is also finding that more CO2 ends up in the ocean over time if the ACC remains as strong as this. She’s looking out over the next few hundred years. She believes a countervailing force is an increased global hydrological cycle.

    Russell says more heat going into the deep ocean driven by this in her model slows the rise in the global average surface temperature chart everyone thinks indicates if global warming is proceeding or not. If this is happening, it has been an increasing drag on the rising chart on a decadal scale, and it is new compared to ENSO for instance.

    Her comment on sea ice: changes are due to the strengthening Westerlies which drive more of the slightly warmer water from the deep ocean to the surface – “we see melting right where we expect to see it on the Antarctic peninsula, growth of sea ice where it is coldest in the Ross Sea, and these are exactly what one would expect from anthropogenic climate interference both from the ozone perspective and greenhouse gas warming”.

    This is ozone depletion and global warming working together. The ozone hole isn’t getting significantly better although the concentration of the chemicals involved is slowly decreasing. The stratosphere is cooling as the troposphere warms which intensifies the power of ozone depleting chemicals in the region, also an ozone poor stratosphere isn’t as warm as an ozone rich one due to ozone absorbs all that UV – self reinforcing the process.

  48. According to Dr. John Wahr’s GRACE data, which can be seen on Skeptical Science, the mass balance of Greenland’s ice sheet did not rebound in November but continued to decrease, which is the first time I have seen that in the record for the month of November.

    See Figure 1 here:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Schoof_et_al_rebuttal_2010.html

  49. Well, sorry, perhaps the data only go to October, the years are divided into units of tenths instead of 12ths. In any case, it is a steep decline, and temperatures on southwest Greenland are still above freezing, at least around Nuuk.

  50. riverat says:

    Prokaryotes #32

    BillD said “how much could it, by itself, contribute to sea level rise?”

    187 feet according to this 2 year old video, which states this would take thousand of years, which we learned seems to be at least 1 magnitude off.

    187 feet would have to be all of Antarctica melting. According to Wikipedia if the WAIS melted it lead to 10-15.75 feet (3.3-4.8 meters) of sea level rise. It would take thousands of years for all of Antarctica to melt but it’s imaginable that the WAIS could collapse in a few decades.

  51. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #49: Gail, if you look carefully you’ll see that the last point is the sixth one of the year, which works out to July plus the first week or so of August. Remember that Greenland is always gaining considerable mass via snowfall above the melt zone; the latter needs to be widespread in order to dominate the trend, which is to say the least very unlikely this time of year even if things are relatively warm is some of the low-altitude locations along the coast.

  52. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #47: Thanks for that, David. The Toggweiler and Russell paper from a few years ago was what first clued me to this problem.

    I wanted to clarify something you said: “(…) she is also finding that more CO2 ends up in the ocean over time if the ACC remains as strong as this.”

    Maybe I’m confused, but I think the opposite. She says:

    “So, ocean acidification, as we add more CO2 to the atmosphere, more of it will dissolve in the ocean.”

    I think this is referring to a global effect in the *surface* ocean (what we are concerned with since that’s where nearly all the life is). Then she says:

    “However, if we emit so many greenhouse gases, so much fossil fuel burning, and right now we are well above our high-end scenarios of ‘burn it all’, then eventually we could warm the surface so strongly that even the stronger winds would not be able to break through and continue to mix the Southern Ocean, at which point that’s the end of our deep ocean sink for carbon dioxide. This is very serious but probably, unless massive mitigation goes on, inevitable.” (emphasis added)

    So we can get increased acidifcation even while the Southern Ocean CO2 sink goes away. How nice.

  53. Steve Bloom says:

    Just to add that the Southern Ocean CO2 sink hasn’t yet been shown to be weakening, although there’s great concern that it could do so at any time. (One recent study by Le Quere et al. showed it weakening, but it’s controversial.) As noted above, with continued warming it’s inevitable that it will weaken. As with so many such things, the only real question is the timing.

  54. Steve Bloom says:

    Also, David, that’s quite a troll in the comment thread over there. Notice how he carefully just raises questions and never tries to resolve anything? Smells like a pro to me. Do you know anything about him?

  55. re: comment #51

    Dear Steve,

    I believe the person you meant to address was me, not Gail.

    You are correct that the graph mentioned in comment #48 does not portray October (nor even September, for that matter), but it would not be correct to think that the GrIS mass balance never continues to decline in November — please have a look in the figure at 2005.

    This year, temperatures on southwestern Greenland have not gone below freezing very often, and the sea-surface temperature anomalies there along the coast continue to be quite high, meaning that the glaciers there are still getting hit from above and below and are reacting accordingly.

    But this all just goes to show what an atrocious memory I have because this is the self-same graph that Dr. Wahr sent to me back in late October — I believe the data go through August. I sent it on to John Cook who used it in his post here:

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/Greenland-ice-mass-loss-after-the-2010-summer.html

    Once people recover from AGU10, perhaps Dr. Wahr will again be so kind as to let us know what happened in October (there generally seems to be a 2-month delay before the data are graphed).

    I just assumed that the more recent post on Skeptical Science contained an updated graph; unfortunately, I have a tendency to jump the shark, so I apologize for any confusion I might have caused.

  56. Steve Bloom says:

    Apologies to Tenney and Gail.

    Tenney, on close examination the data does seem to be divided by months, not tenths. The big drop tends to be July and August. 2005 had a small drop in September and 2008 in October, but overall there doesn’t seem to be a trend toward late fall melting. This reflects that fact that it’s awfully hard to keep the ice sheet surface above freezing once the light is gone. This year’s polar vortex breakdown may give us another late melt month (by moving warm air masses across the ice sheet), but so far such events aren’t the rule, although my suspicion is that they will be in the not too distant future. Even then, though, the big melt will still happen when the sun is strong.

    Summing up, the main story remains the consistent year to year drop, which is apparently slightly accelerating although there aren’t yet enough data points to know that for sure.

    What’s the Brazil drought status, BTW? I haven’t been able to find an up-to-date English source for that.

  57. On Dr. Wahr’s graph of the GrIS GRACE data the scale is divided into ten parts, but there are 12 data points for each year, as far as I can tell.

    The above graph goes only through August’s data.

    Recall that 2005 was an exceptionally warm year. Until the last few years, the trend of the decline in the GrIS mass balance was a linear fit, etc., but with the acceleration in the rate of loss, researchers say that a quadratic trend line is a better fit.

    The drought in the Amazon began to ease off in November. All that rain ends up somewhere, so the rest of the country got flooded in many areas.