The Melting Point
Vanishing glaciers, impermanent permafrost, collapsing ice shelves, rising sea levels. Are the latest facts about global warming enough to get the Bush administrations attention?
by Paul Rauber
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Drop by drop, global warming is melting the worlds ice. While the Bush administration proposes yet more studies, world climate is changing in front of our eyes.
Montanas Glacier Park, for instance, could soon be Glacierless Park. Of the 150 glaciers it had in the 19th century, only 35 remain. The well-known Grinnell Glacier has already declined by 90 percent, and what remains is fading fast. Within 30 years, all the parks glaciers could be gone.
In the Pacific Northwest, ice in the Cascade Range is also diminishing. The South Cascade Glacier has lost half its volume since 1928, and most of Mt. Rainiers glaciers are shrinking. Water managers in Seattle are concerned that more rapid melting could lead first to flooding, and eventually to declining flows and a terrible choice: drinking water, or salmon runs?
Temperate-zone glaciers are coughing up their ancient secrets, like the Neolithic "Iceman," whose 5,300-year-old mummified body was discovered by passing hikers in the melting ice of the Italian Alps in 1991. Such glaciers are disappearing all over the world, but not as fast as those in the tropics. In Tanzania, for example, the snows of Kilimanjaro are vanishing. The mountains ice field, which Ernest Hemingway called "as wide as all the world, great, high, and unbelievably white in the sun," lost more than 80 percent of its area in the last century; within 15 years, it will be gone altogether.
The worlds other major tropical glaciers crown the peaks of the Andes and are relied upon by the people of Bolivia and Peru for drinking water, irrigation, and hydropower. They are now melting so fast that some worry about flash floods. When they are gone, however, they will leave millions thirsty. More immediately, a huge chunk of glacier in Peru is threatening to fall into Lake Palcacocha; if it does, it will flood Huaráz, a city of 60,000. Among Bolivias glaciers, the Condoriri is wasting away, as are the Zongo and Huayna Potosí. The mighty Qori Kalis is retreating at the rate of nearly two feet per day; you can sit beside it on a warm afternoon and watch the Ice Age melt away before your eyes.
Earths greatest ice masses are in the polar regions, which are warming even faster than elsewhere. According to the EPA, "Arctic temperatures during the late 20th century appear to have been the warmest in 400 years." Since the 1950s, Alaska temperatures have increased by an average of four degrees Fahrenheit. The sea ice that covers the North Pole has thinned by 40 percent over the past four decades during late summer and early autumn, and the summer of 2002 found it the scantiest in half a century at least. The less ice there is, the less sunlight is reflected back into space. Sea ice reflects about 80 percent of solar radiation; when it is gone, this radiation is absorbed by the water, heating it further and increasing polar temperatures.
Shipping companies are looking forward to the opening of an ice-free Northwest Passage, a centuries-old dream that is finally coming true as part of this global nightmare. The shrinkage is already affecting the arctic species that depend on sea ice: polar bears, ringed seals, and walrus, not to mention the traditional peoples who hunt them. The Inuit call the weather uggianaqtuq: "like a familiar friend acting strangely."
Temperatures in Antarctica are behaving oddly as wellstable in parts of the continent, even dropping slightly in others, but rising 4.5 degrees in the past half century on the Antarctic Peninsula. This is where a 1,250-square-mile section of the Larsen B ice shelf collapsed in March 2002 in a flurry of giant icebergs. Since ice shelves are already floating, the breakup wont raise sea level (just as melting ice cubes wont make a glass overflow). But ice shelves may act as dams on glaciers, which do raise sea levels when they melt. According to a recent article in Science, after the collapse of part of the Larsen shelf in 1995, five out of six glaciers began a rush for the sea.
The biggest danger from melting glaciers comes from Greenland, which lies in the rapidly warming Arctic. NASA estimates that Greenland is losing more than 12 cubic miles of water a year from its vast ice sheet. Last years thaw exceeded all known records, and the more the ice recedes, the faster glaciers speed toward the ocean, gliding on a cushion of meltwater.
Proving that nothing is permanent, even the permafrost is melting. In northern Norway, corpses of those killed by flu and smallpox epidemics early in the last century are surfacing in cemeteries, possibly still contagious. The Swiss are building dams in anticipation of landslides caused by liquefying permafrost. In Alaska, all of the permafrost below the Yukon has warmed, and buildings and roads are buckling as the once-solid ground beneath them shifts and sagsa process that may threaten the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The frozen organic matter in permafrost holds one-seventh of the worlds carbon; its release through melting and subsequent decomposition could dramatically boost the amount of heat-trapping CO2 in the atmosphere.
Like the vision shown to Ebenezer Scrooge by the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, this iceless world is not inevitable. Humans created the problem (at least in part) and we have the technology and know-how to slow, stop, and reverse it. The Bush administration, however, still acts as though global warming were a Democratic ruse. One of President Bushs first acts upon election was to renounce the Kyoto Protocol, the international communitys modest first effort toward stabilizing production of greenhouse gases. Despite the strong consensus of the worlds scientific community that human actions are changing the climate, the Bush administration advocates only voluntary measures and more researchand inadequate research at that. This spring, an expert panel convened at the White Houses request by the National Academy of Sciences strongly criticized the administrations proposed research plan. "In some areas, its as if these people were not cognizant of the existing science," panel member William Schlesinger of Duke University told the New York Times. "Stuff that would have been cutting edge in 1980 is listed as a priority for the future." At this point, more research is just an excuse for more delay.
That contention was strengthened in March with the leaking of a remarkable set of talking points for the Republican leadership by pollster Frank Luntz. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly," Luntz advises. "Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate. . . . The scientific debate is closing (against us) but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science."
Those who favor action on global warming, Luntz warns, have a very powerful argumentwhich is, as he paraphrases it: "The future will be a better place if we take the necessary action today." To undermine this message of hope, he advises Republicans to talk about how "unnecessary environmental regulation hurts moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas." The lack of mention of kids is significant. Those who ignore the clear signs of global warming are, in effect, pitting this generation against the next.
Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.
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