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Arctic climate (anti-)Trump card in Davos

Glaciers - beautiful but highly endangered in our warming age. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Swiss glaciers – like the Arctic – are an endangered species. ( I.Quaile)

With the Trump inauguration looming large, we have every reason to be more concerned than ever about the prospects for the climate. And given that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, the high north could be said to be in double trouble.

All the more reason to look beyond the political stage in the narrowest terms to push the need for climate action. Take, for instance, the “Arctic Basecamp” which has been set up in Davos in Switzerland, where that illustrious gathering the World Economic Forum (WEF) is underway.  “Responsive and responsible leadership” is the theme, with 3,000 participants attending, more than ever before. And the biggest delegation is from the USA, with 836 participants.

Given the president elect’s views on climate change, the decision by some influential scientists to use the mega economic gathering of the great and mighty is a smart move. It seems the time has come to acknowledge that we cannot rely on governments alone to halt climate change and preserve the Arctic ice. Maybe we just have to admit that business has a huge impact, huge potential, and should bear a lot of the responsibility for climate protection? And of course, the chance to get an urgent climate message across to a group of highly influential people from business and politics is just too good to miss.

Time for some responsive and responsible leadership for the Arctic?

A group of leading scientists are holding an  Arctic Science Summit in Davos on January 18th, and plan to  call on global leaders for immediate action on the Arctic. The summit is a collaboration between Lancaster University, the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

Too warm for some: meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (I.Quaile)

Against the background of unprecedented temperatures almost 20 °C (36 Fahrenheit) warmer than normal in some parts of the Arctic this winter, the summit is designed as a call to action to global leaders to apply the theme of “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”, in tackling the global risks posed by Arctic change. Al Gore, Chair of the Climate Reality Project and Christiana Figueres, the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are amongst the  high profile figures invited.

The summit is being hosted in Arctic Basecamp style tents in the grounds of the WSL, which is aptly positioned close to the official delegate hotel. A good publicity stunt. The tents are a catchy contrast to the luxury accommodation around them. The equipment is provided by the British Antarctic Survey,  (BAS) another of the organisers. A reputed scientific organization and active in a region that captures the imagination of a wide audience as the coldest, remotest place on the planet. And which, still, is not immune to the effects of global warming.

Global platform for Arctic action

To Iceblog readers, the message from Jeremy Wilkinson, one of the organizers from BAS, comes as no surprise: “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay there.  The Arctic is the canary in the coalmine for the world’s climate.” But many of the world’s most powerful decision-makers still haven’t got the message, he says. (Tut-tut, not all following the Iceblog??):

“It (the Arctic) is sending us a warning cry that has profound consequences and risks globally. Yet the Arctic remains invisible to the world’s most powerful decision-makers.  We want to change that.”

His colleague from the British University of Lancaster, Professor Gail Whiteman, writes on the BAS website:

“We know that science has important answers in assessing the global risks associated with the Arctic ice melt and we need to make this as visible as possible in Davos. Arctic change is at a critical juncture; hard choices need to be made. These must be evidence-based and not ideologically driven. Ultimately we want to see a new Global Platform for Arctic Action, and it starts here with this summit.”

"Where's my ice"? (Swiss Alps, Pic: I.Quaile)

“There used to be more ice up here!” (Swiss alps,  I.Quaile)

Renowned climate expert Professor Konrad Steffen is Director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. He, too, stresses the need for urgent action and the global relevance of the melting ice:

“The Polar Regions, as well as Alpine regions, will experience two to three times the mean level of global warming predicted for the future. We need to act swiftly to delay, or prevent, the loss of the ice masses in the mountains and the shrinking of the two polar ice sheets which will lead to unsustainable sea level rises.”

“Everybody who’s anybody…”

In a piece for the Arctic Journal entitled “Bringing the Arctic to the mountain”, journalist Kevin McGwin writes:

“Unofficially, Davos is the place to be if you consider yourself to be anyone in politics, business or the non-profit industry, and folks who attend have a saying of their own: the more programme events you turn up at, the less you get out of it. The real action takes place on the sidelines.”

Here’s hoping there is plenty of that at the Arctic Basecamp. McGwin goes on:

“Considering that 3,000-person guest list starts with António Guterres, the newly installed UN secretary-general, and encompasses multiple heads of state (including Xi Jinping) and captains of industry from over 1,000 companies, there is probably something to this.”

Arctic Frontiers at Tromso University

Tromso University hosts Arctic Frontiers (I.Quaile)

Indeed.  If you want to reach a lot of very influential people with a message about risks associated with climate change, Davos is certainly one place to do it. McGwin notes that the major Arctic Frontiers gathering is taking place in Tromso, Norway, at the same time. I have attended that event several times in recent years. It is undoubtedly an important meeting with a scientific and a political section. But the global players gathered in Davos should, in principle, be able to exert far more influence when it comes to changing the economic and energy patterns which have been the basis for bringing about the climate change that is melting the Arctic.

Arctic melt – business opportunity?

The WEF also reaches wider media coverage, and, arguably, those who really need to change things. Preaching to the converted will not stop climate warming. McGwin quotes Gail Whiteman:

“Few outside the region have an idea of the role the Arctic plays, or the changes it is facing. Those that do tend to see the changes as an opportunity.”

This puts one of the key problems with Arctic climate change in a nutshell. Melting ice means easier access, more activity and thus higher risks for the fragile ecosystem – and ultimately, possibly more climate warming through increased emissions.

Professor Whiteman told McGwin:“We are at Davos to make the Arctic visible. Arctic change is at a critical point, and the kind of decisions that need to be made start at Davos.”

The organizers will also be circulating a petition asking Davos participants to contribute to a kitty to help fund an information campaign to keep decision-makers up to date on what is happening in the Arctic.

It seems the Arctic basecamp idea first came up at Arctic Frontiers in Tromso back in 2012. The Arctic Journal says Whiteman realized, during a discussion there, that people were very keen to get people in the boardrooms of companies to talk about the risk Arctic change was posing to their business. It dawned on Whiteman that the place to reach these people would be in Davos rather than Tromso.

At last year’s meeting, the WEF issued an Arctic Investment Protocol. Whiteman,  worries that “once investors take an interest in the Arctic, they will see the opportunity but overlook the risk”.

If the message that “what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic”is to sink in, McGwin concludes his article, then “what happens in Davos must not stay in Davos”.

Agreed, colleague. But, as we know, competition for public attention is fierce. Let us hope that the Arctic Basecamp will not be upstaged by the other events going on in the Swiss alps this week. And that the overall focus there “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”, and the need for international dialogue and concerted action rather than isolationism will still make the world headlines as the Trumpocene commences across the Atlantic.

 

 

 

Date

January 17, 2017 | 2:22 pm

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New Zealand glaciers on the retreat

Arctic phone box - a chilly wind DOWN from the pole! (pic: I.Quaile)

Arctic phone box – a chilly wind DOWN from the pole! (pic: I.Quaile)

During my first trip to Australia around 25 years ago, I was standing outside a phone box (there are still such things even in this smartphone age) one evening, in a chilly wind.

“That wind’s coming straight up off the pole”, a local told me. Up off the pole? That was a weird image for a visitor from the northern hemisphere. It figures, the wind blows up rather than down from the pole when you’re at the other end of the world.

A few years later, during a visit to New Zealand, I was tickled to find there were “alps” to visit, with glaciers, reminiscent of some of my favourite hiking territory in Switzerland. I haven’t heard much about them since.

There hasn’t been much about New Zealand in the media here in Europe, except when earthquakes strike, or – the latest popular summertime story – the decision to exterminate all “alien” predators like mice, rats and possums.

But this week I came across a story by the New Zealand Herald on Twitter, entitled “warning sounds for vanishing glaciers”.  Needless to say this set the alarm bells ringing with the Iceblogger.

Iceblogger, Iceblocker?

It seems these beautiful icy regions have also been affected considerably by climate warming.

Rapid retreat

The South Island of New Zealand is home to snowy mountains and picturesque glaciers. The article by Jamie Morton describes how the glaciers have been retreating massively since 2011. The pictures, taken by Brian Anderson of Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, show a dramatic change. The latest measurements for Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, the ones I visited, show they have “shrunk to record levels”, the article quotes Dr. Anderson.

I must delve into my photo archive at home for pics taken when I was there in 2000 and compare them with the latest. I have the feeling the comparison would be a sobering one.

Twice a year, scientists conduct surveys of the snowlines and glacier retreats in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The measurements take place at the end of winter, and again at the end of summer.

Glaciers - beautiful but highly endangered in our warming age. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Glaciers – beautiful but highly endangered in our warming age. (Pic. I.Quaile)

The scientist says the snow accumulation on the glaciers was average in winter 2015, but high by the end of the very warm summer in 2016.

In the last five years, it seems the Fox Glacier has retreated 750 meters, the Franz Josef as much as 1.5 kilometres.

The ice volume in the Southern Alps has decreased from 170 cu km in the 1890s to a current 36.1, and is predicted to go down to between 7 and 12 cu km, by 2100. Yikes.

The last dramatic loss of ice was during the summer of 2010/2011, under the influence of a strong La Nina climate system – one of the strongest ever recorded, according to Jamie Morton. The latest ice loss appears to be similar in amount.

“Based on regional warming projections of 1.5C to 2.5 C, it has been projected by glaciologists Valentina Radic and Regine Hock that just 7 to 12 cu km of ice would remain on the alps by the end of this century, Morton writes.

The snowline has also moved up to “exceptionally high levels”, Morton quotes Dr. Andrew Lorry from the National Institute of Water and Atmosphere (NIWA).

Warming water, melting ice

The article says before last summer, the experts expected the El Nino to have a major impact. But instead, it was unseasonably warm sea surface temperatures in the Tasman Sea, bringing warmer air over land, that caused the damage.

With temperatures higher than average so far this season, it seems likely more ice and snow will be melting.

Are we surprised by all this? Perhaps not. Concerned? Saddened? Definitely. Clearly the cold wind blowing up off the south pole, like the one blowing down from the north, is no longer enough to secure those icy areas of New Zealand.

Of course emissions reductions have to take place across the board. Local melting is not only caused by local actions. Still, countries who profit from their ice and snow, like New Zealand, where the alps are an important tourist attraction, can be expected to set a good example in implementing measures to halt the warming. The “Climate action tracker”, an independent science-based assessment of country’s emissions targets and actual action, rates New Zealand’s INDC 2030 target as “inadequate”. That means its commitment is not in line with a “fair” approach to reach a 2° C maximum temperature rise pathway.

“If most other countries followed the New Zealand approach, global warming would exceed 3–4°C”, the website says.

Maybe I better not wait too long for another visit to those New Zealand glaciers. At this rate, I will hardly even need my snow boots.

boot

Redundant? (Pic: I.Quaile)

 

Date

July 29, 2016 | 2:20 pm

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Rising seas culprit: ice or heat?

IMG_1271

Melting ice off Greenland (Pic: I.Quaile)

My attention was caught this week by a study that ascertained that thermal expansion accounts for a much greater share of sea level rise than previously thought. In fact, quite a few journalists got the message wrong. They thought the researchers had found that climate change was causing sea level rise twice as high as previously thought, which would have been quite a sensation. In fact, what the scientists actually found was that the amount of sea level rise that comes from the oceans warming and expanding has been underestimated and is probably about twice as much as previously calculated. There is a clear difference, which does not make the research – using the latest available satellite data – any less interesting.

Since two of the authors of the study are based here in Bonn, I was able to drop in on them and get them to explain their findings and the implications for our Living Planet programme. That will be broadcast in the near future. I also talked to Professor Anders Levermann from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact research on the phone, to get the research findings into context.

While physicists understand the workings of thermal expansion in the oceans in general, Levermann told me there is still a lot to learn about how the heat from excess warming is transported in the ocean, which is of key importance to understanding sea level rise, amongst other things. He says the new research will help make models of future sea level rise more accurate.

Roelof Riebroek and Jürgen Kusche, University of Bonn

Roelof Riebroek and Jürgen Kusche, University of Bonn (Pic: I.Quaile)

The Bonn researchers explained to me how satellite technology has made huge improvements in the collection of data, especially relating to the very deep areas of the ocean, which are very difficult to reach with conventional measuring gauges. Professor Kusche told me he would like to see the results of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, being used by governments and coastal planners, as sea level rise will affect a large number of people living in coastal areas in the not-too-distant future. Warming seas are also linked to the occurence of storms, making the findings doubly relevant to those involved in protecting coastal areas.

From an Iceblogger point of view, I was keen to know whether the knowledge about the amount of sea level rise ascribed to  thermal expansion had any implications for the role played by melting ice in raising sea level. If thermal expansion is accounting for a higher share of the sea level rise, is melting ice from Greenland and Antarctica accounting for less? I put that question first to Professor Kusche.

“We think that less of the sea level rise is coming from melting ice and glaciers, that’s actually true,” he answered. He said he and his colleagues had done a very thorough re-analysis of all the measurements available over the last 12 or 13 years, “and we are pretty sure that our numbers are correct”.

Rietbroek came in that that point: “Less, but not that much less. If you look at pubished literature and estimates of glacier melting, and try to add those up, you won’t be that far away from what we get. So the melting of glaciers is not that different from what’s been found previously”, he added.

Ice melts from above and below

Climate change melts ice – from above and below(Pic:I.Quaile)

I put the same question to Professor Levermann from PIK, who runs an ice sheet model for the Antarctic and was lead author of the IPCC chapter on sea level change. He explained to me that the various contributions to sea level rise are measured and modelled separately by different teams of experts in particular fields. The models all have a wide range of possible variation. He told me there is still some uncertainty in the distribution of the “sea level rise budget” between thermal expansion, ice sheet melt, mountain glacier melt and groundwater mining. While the latest findings on thermal expansion could potentially shift the relative contributions and are important for improving models to project future sea level rise more accurately, they do not change the validity of predictions relating to the amount of ice going into the ocean.

Ultimately, Levermann says, one of the IPCC statements with the highest certainty is that sea level will continue to rise for centuries to come. He was one of the authors of yet another study  published in Nature Climate Change this past week, led by Peter Clark from the Oregon State University. It affirms that our greenhouse gas emissions today produce climate change commitments for many centuries to millenia. Unless the Paris climate agreement is put into practice asap and we reach zero or negative emissions, up to 20 percent of the world’s population will find itself living in areas that may have to be abandoned.

We are, indeed, living in the Anthropocene. Recently, I interviewed a scientist who found that we have already postponed the next ice age by 50,000 years through our fossil fuel emissions. The latest sea level study indicates that the next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to avoid increased ice loss from Antarctica and “large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far”.

 

 

Date

February 12, 2016 | 2:50 pm

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Anthropocene: No ice age – more blizzards?

 

Heavy snow - not just fun (Pic: I.Quaile)

Heavy snow – not all fun (Pic: I.Quaile)

If you are sitting somewhere on the East Coast of the USA, struggling to cope with 30 inches of snow, you might be forgiven for reacting with relief to a report released by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) indicating human-made climate change is suppressing the next ice age. With a wink in your eye, you might be very grateful that these extreme conditions are only going to last for a few days and not become the everyday normality of a new ice age.

There are those (but increasingly few of them) who might even thank the fossil fuels industries for averting a scenario like “The Day after Tomorrow” and ensuring that the relatively comfortable interglacial in which we live is likely to continue for the next 100,000 years. That is the conclusion of the study published in the scientific journal Nature.

The problem is that postponing an ice-age illustrates that human interference with natural climate cycles over a relatively short time has the potential to change the world for a hundred thousand years to come, with all the problems that come with it. And given that the increase in extreme weather events like the US snowstorm is highly probably related to anthropogenic climate change, perhaps an ice age in 50,000 years would be the lesser evil.

Burn fossil fuels, suppress the ice age

Using complex models to try to find out which factors influenced the last eight glacial cycles in earth history and what is likely to lie ahead of us, the scientists found that as well as astronomical factors like the earth’s position in relation to the sun in different stages of its orbit, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is a key factor.

I talked to physicist and earth systems modeler Andrey Ganopolski, lead author of the study to find out more about the research and the background.

Listen to the interview.

Ganopolski is a physicist and climate modeler. (Pic: PIK)

Ganopolski is a physicist and climate modeler. (Pic: PIK)

According to Milankovich’s theory, a new ice age should occur when the earth is far away from the sun and summer is colder than usual in the northern hemisphere, at high latitudes in Canada and northern Europe. These are the areas where big ice sheets can grow. At the moment, Ganopolski explained, we have a situation where our summer occurs when the earth is far from the sun. So in principle, we have the conditions when a new ice age can potentially start. He and his colleagues wanted to understand why we are not living in an ice age when astronomically, the conditions are just right to move towards a new ice age.

Meddling with the planet

They come to the conclusion that naturally, without any anthropogenic influence, we would expect the new ice age to start around 50,000 years from now. That would mean that this interglacial, the Holocene, in which we live now, would already be unusually long. In the past, an interglacial lasted only 10 or 20,000 years, but this one is expected to last for 60,000 years.

arctic emissions

Greenhouse gas emissions are transforming all areas of the planet. (Pic: I.Quaile)

But our emissions of greenhouse gases are postponing this even further. Relatively large anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions – say two to three times what we already emitted – would, according to the scientists’ model, additionally postpone the next ice age, so that it would only start 100, 000 years from now, so we would completely skip one glacial cycle, which never happened in the last three million years.

Humankind as a geological force

Now regardless of whether you are a fan of ice and snow or one of those who say they can happily live without any more ice ages, the study’s findings illustrate just how long anthropogenic influence on climate will continue. Humanity, it seems, has become a geological force that is able to suppress the beginning of the next ice age, according to the PIK experts. Human behavior is changing the natural cycles that have shaped the global environment and human evolution.

Over the last 3 million years, glacial cycles were more or less regular. Most of the evolution of humans occurred during those last three million years. Ganopolski says humans can be seen as a kind of product of glacial cycles, because the conditions were probably right to increase the size of our brain, because we had to be clever to survive in such a variable climate.

Melting ice, north and south? (Photo: I Quaile)

Melting ice, north and south? (Photo: I Quaile)

Who cares?

But given that it is easier and pleasanter to live in non ice-age conditions, there is still an understandable tendency to respond to the ice-age-postponement announcement with: “so what?”

Ganopolski argues one reason the study is significant is that it does away with the arguments of some climate skeptics who have argued that warming the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is not a bad thing, because it could avert an “imminent” ice age (a theory first made popular around thirty years ago, he says). Since the research indicates there is none on the horizon for more than 50,000 years anyway, this is nonsense, says Ganopolski.

But the main reason the research findings deserve attention, he says, is that they show we can affect the climate for up to a hundred thousand years. He believes a lot of people think if we stop using fossil fuels tomorrow or the day after, everything will be fine. In fact, anthropogenic carbon dioxide will stay in the atmosphere for an extremely long time. “That means we are affecting earth’s future on a geological time scale”, he says.

Whether the next ice age comes in 50,000 or 100,000 years may seem irrelevant to a lot of people, faced with the concerns of life today. But the effects of our warming the globe are already being felt and will have considerable implications well before that, Ganopolski reminds us. He says the new study just shows how massive our interference with the earth’s systems is, and backs up the need to take action now to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Measuring CO2 in Ny Alesund, Svalbard, Spitzbergen

Rising CO2 emissions are influencing glacial patterns (Measuring station on Svalbard, Pic. I. Quaile)

Greenland and Antarctic in the Anthropocene

He mentions the research also deals with Greenland and Antarctica:

“What we show is that even with the CO2 concentration we have already, we can expect that a substantial fraction of these ice sheets will melt. So obviously, in this respect, any further increase of CO2 will have even more negative effects”.

Sea level rise, ocean acidification, changing food supplies, floods, droughts…and, yes, even more of those extreme blizzards, fuelled, paradoxically, by warming seas…maybe there is more to this delaying the ice age business than first seemed.

So are we living in the “Anthropocene”, i.e. an era in which not nature but humankind is determining the shape of the world we live in now and for centuries to come? Ganopolski and his colleagues say yes. He stresses what we are doing to the climate and the speed at which it is happening represent unprecedented, substantial deviation from the natural course of things.

“So if you continue to emit a substantial amount of carbon dioxide, the Anthropocene will last for hundreds of thousands of years, before systems return to anything like “normal” conditions”, he says.

Another  study published in Nature  today provides further evidence that human intervention is responsible for the annual heat records that have been in the news so often recently they run the risk of losing their news value. Ganopolski’s PIK colleague Stefan Rahmstorf, one of the authors, says the heat records, with 13 of the last 15 years the warmest since records began, can no longer be explained by natural climate variation. But they can be explained by human-induced climate change.

But is there any point in making potentially uncomfortable changes to the way we live today if we have already changed the atmosphere so massively, for such a long time to come? Ganopolski stresses the extent and speed of the changes and impacts are no grounds for resignation:

“There is no justification for making the climate even warmer than it is. It is a matter of how much CO2 we will emit into the atmosphere. Basically, it will affect all generations, and if we care about them, we should stop using fossil fuel as soon as possible.”

Sounds sensible to me.

Date

January 25, 2016 | 3:55 pm

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Can Paris avert climate threat to cryosphere?

 

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

Meltpool on the Greenland ice sheet (Pic: I.Quaile)

To those of us who work on polar subjects, there is no question about the relevance of the cryosphere to the annual UN climate negotiations. But in the run-up to the annual mega-event – especially in a year dubbed by some to be the “last chance” for climate – it was not easy to get attention for the Arctic, Antarctic and high-altitude peaks and glaciers of the world.

I had a discussion with some of my colleagues who focus on Africa and Asia. With problems like political unrest, wars, famine and drought to cope with, the fate of polar bears, one told me, is completely irrelevant.

You could say this colleague is suffering from a kind of tunnel vision. But it also prompts me to wonder whether the way we communicate the threat of climate change is partly to blame.

Not just polar bears

Earlier this week I read about a study indicating that people were more likely to donate to campaigns which focus on people, on social injustice rather than on conservation and environmental degradation. Somehow, we journalists have to make the connection between the two. When you remind people that increasing sea levels caused to a large extent by changes in our ice sheets pose a huge threat not only to small island states but to many of the world’s megacities, the cryosphere takes on a new relevance. Not to mention the fact that the ice, snow and permafrost covered regions of our planet play a major role in regulating the world’s climate and water supplies.

What life goes on beneath the Svalbard sea ice? (Pic I.Quaile)

Ice off Svalbard  (Pic I.Quaile)

One organization that works to bring the attention of delegates at the UN climate talks to our icy regions is the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, ICCI. In time for this year’s COP21, it commissioned a report from leading scientists: “Thresholds and closing windows. Risks of irreversible cryosphere climate change”. The report summarizes the levels of risk in five key areas: ice sheets loss and related sea-level rise, polar ocean acidification, land glacier loss, permafrost melt, and the loss of Arctic summer sea ice. The report is based on the last IPCC assessment plus literature published in the three years since.

Bringing the ice closer

Pam Pearson is the director and founder of ICCI. I have interviewed her on various occasions, including during visits she made to Bonn, the home of the UNFCCC, to brief delegates. This time we were not able to meet in person, but we have been in Email contact. I asked her how difficult it was to arouse interest within the negotiations at the moment, with so much going on. She told me it was difficult mainly because very few people globally actually live near cryosphere.

“Yet we are all deeply connected to these regions, because of their role in the Earth climate system — especially through sea-level rise, water resources from land glaciers, and permafrost release that will make it harder to meet carbon budgets. “

The Arctic, parts of Antarctica and many mountain regions have already warmed two to three times faster than the rest of the planet, between 2 and 3.5 degrees Celsius up on pre-industrial levels. Climate change is also affecting high altitude areas such as the Himalayas and the Andes, where seasonal glacier melt provides water for drinking and irrigation, especially in dry periods.

When the outside risk becomes the norm

The changes are far more extreme than those forecast in even the most pessimistic scenarios of a few years ago.  In the IPCC’s 2007 Fourth Assessment, the outer extreme estimate for sea level rise (mostly from glacier ice melt) was about one meter by the end of this century.  Today, the experts say even if we could halt warming now, it would be impossible to avoid sea-level rise of one meter from glaciers, ice sheets and the natural expansion of warming waters, within the next two hundred years. Most scientists also agree that the West Antarctic ice sheet has already been destabilized by warming to the extent where this probably cannot be halted, which will increase sea level further.

Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI. (Pic: I.Quaile)

Pearson used to be a climate negotiator herself, so she knows the pressures and constraints. She told me that while participants in the climate conferences were broadly aware of issues like ice melt at the poles and on high-altitude glaciers, they tended to lack awareness of two key aspects:

“First, that we have already passed, or are close to passing temperature levels that will cause certain processes to begin; and second, that some of these processes cannot be stopped once they get started.”

She says a “sense of urgency” is lacking, and stresses that although some of the most damaging consequences will only occur in hundreds or even thousands of years, they will be determined by our actions or inactions in the coming few decades. That includes the 2020-30 commitment period that is the focus of the agreement being worked on in Paris Pearson stresses.

The cryosphere needs more ambitious targets

The report analyses the implications of the INDCs, or current pledges put on the table by the countries of the world for the Paris climate talks. The scientists come to the conclusion that these will not be enough to prevent the onset of many irreversible cryosphere processes.

Even the two-degree pathway agreed by the international community translates into a peak cryosphere temperature of between 4 and 7 degrees above pre-industrial levels, according to the ice experts. Yet the UN and others say current commitments would lead to global temperatures 2.7 to 3.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100, rising later to between 3.4 and 4.2 degrees. The peak in global carbon emissions would occur well after 2050. The associated temperatures would trigger permanent changes in our ice and snow that cannot be reversed, including the complete loss of most mountain glaciers, the complete loss of portions of West Antarctica’s Ice Sheets and parts of Greenland. This would ultimately equate to an unstoppable sea level rise of a minimum four to ten meters, the scientists find.

Greenland's glaciers are all ready discharging huge amounts of ice into the ocean (I.Quaile)

Greenland’s glaciers are already discharging huge amounts of ice into the ocean (I.Quaile)

In addition, the increase of CO2 being absorbed in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean is turning the water more acidic and so threatening fisheries, marine ecosystems and species.

Another of the key issues which is often neglected is that of permafrost. About a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere’s land area contains ground that remains frozen throughout the year. This holds vast amounts of ancient organic carbon. So when it thaws, carbon dioxide and methane are released, which fuel further warming. Even a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees could result in a 30% loss of near-surface permafrost. This would mean 50 Gigatonnes of additional carbon emissions by 2100. Given that the total carbon budget allocated to a two-degree temperature rise is only 275 Gigatonnes, that would be a huge factor. The ICCI experts say this thaw would not be reversible, except on geological time scales.

Dwindling Arctic sea ice

Arctic summer sea ice has declined rapidly, especially since 2000. Only about half the sea ice survives the summer today compared to 1950. This is “both a result and a cause of overall Arctic and global warming”, according to the ICCI report. White ice reflects heat into space. When it melts, it is replaced by dark water, which absorbs the heat, exacerbating warming further.

The Arctic sea ice has a tempering effect on global temperatures and weather patterns. It would only be possible to reverse the disappearance of the ice in summer with a return to regular global temperatures of 1 to 2 degrees above pre-industrial times, according to the report.

Andes and Himalayas

Receding mountain glaciers in the European Alps, American Rockies, Andes and East Africa were among the first identified, visible impacts of climate change, originally from natural factors. Sometime in the past 50 years, anthropogenic climate change surpassed natural warming as the main driver of retreat, and caused about two-thirds of glacier melt between 1991 and 2010, according to the ICCI report.

Glaciers - beautiful but highly endangered, like this one I visited in the Swiss alps. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Glaciers – beautiful but highly endangered, like this one I visit regularly  in the Swiss alps. (Pic. I.Quaile)

Glaciers are important to nearby communities as a source of water for drinking or irrigation. Some are especially important in dry seasons, heat waves and droughts. Melting glaciers provide an increase in water for a limited time. But ultimately, the lack of water could make traditional agriculture impossible in some regions of the Himalayas or the Andes.

So unless governments in Paris move fast to increase their commitments and bring the deadlines for emissions reductions forward, the windows to prevent some of these irreversible impacts on the polar and high mountain regions may close during the 2020-2030 commitment period.

It is not too late

However, the scientists stress that it is still possible to reduce emissions to the required level, if the political will becomes strong enough. Pam Pearson says the world has to get onto the path towards the two-degree goal now. Like many experts, she says this in itself is risky enough for the cryosphere, and a 1.5 degree pathway would be safer:

“So if countries indeed agree with UNFCCC chief Christiana Figueres’ proposal to meet every five years to strengthen INDCs, moving onto these lower-temperature pathways should be a concrete goal.  Perhaps even more important, I understand the French COP presidency may be aiming at strengthening actions PRIOR to 2020, in the 2015-2020 period. This kind of earlier action is really vital, and will make the job of keeping temperatures as low as possible easier”
Without much more ambitious targets, the ICCI study concludes it will be “close to impossible” to avoid rapid deterioration of our snow and ice regions.

The challenge is to make the delegates in Paris understand that that does not just mean cosmetic changes to distant parts of the globe, but that it would also destabilize the global climate, displace millions of people and endanger food and water supplies in many parts of the world.

 

 

 

 

Date

December 1, 2015 | 3:00 pm

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