Are You Ready for the Biggest Environmental Catastrophe of Our Lifetime?
"Nero fiddled while Rome burned." -- Unknown
I am a surfer and have been since 13 years of age. Being a surfer, you develop an innate sense of weather patterns and their impact on the sea. Cold fronts, warm fronts, low pressure systems, hurricanes, nor'easters, etc. The weather and how nature reacts to changing air patterns become part of your make-up as you seek out the waves. It's been a lifetime of learning and watching nature do its thing. I am a waterman with a love of science and data. Enter Antarctica.
Antarctica has been on my mind thanks to the folks at HBO's VICE ("The Definitive Guide to Enlightened Information" as they call themselves). Big chunks of that continent are falling into the sea. And the team at VICE have done a stellar job reporting the facts. The deniers can blow all the smoke they want, but as you watch this spectacle unfold, history, pictures, science, data and nature do not lie.
Antarctica is a beautiful and majestic continent. There is a purity about this land mass that you don't get anywhere else on the planet. It holds 90% of the world's ice and 70% of the world's fresh water. Antarctica is 1.5 times the land mass of the continental United States.
The entire continent is at risk, but the big changes that are taking place now are in West Antarctica (WA). The disruption in the ecosystem there is poised for acceleration in the months and years ahead—and it will be rapid. The effects will be felt across the planet. Just ask the folks in Bangladesh now. Theirs is one of the most low-lying countries on Earth.
Millions are currently being displaced from their coastal homes due to perpetual rising waters—a quiet and permanent tsunami taking over their lives; Venice, Italy, now under water 100 days each year; parts of Miami Beach now starting to experience consistent flooding on a regular basis (as a former resident I have seen it first hand); the people of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean quickly losing their small island nation to water. Shanghai, Amsterdam and Bangkok are among hundreds of low-lying cities that will likely start to experience consistent rising waters if they have not already.
We have been watching a version of WA collapse take place in Greenland over the years, and from the data that scientists have been able to pull, we are 60 years ahead of worst-case scenarios for ice loss there. Precedent has been set in Greenland as we are readied for the main catastrophic environmental event of our lifetime now unfolding in Antarctica.
Trust me, I very much want to be wrong on this scenario, but all the signs and science are there in alignment. In WA, adjacent to Pine Island Bay, a portion of the Pine Island Glacier the size of Singapore broke off and tumbled into the bay in 2013. Then in 2014 an American Geophysical Union report took things a few steps further showing that the West Antarctic ice sheet is actually melting away. At some point soon, West Antarctic trouble spots like Pine Island Glacier, Thwaites, Haynes, Pope, Smith and Koehler Glaciers are all going to be at risk to massive melting.
As this trend accelerates, the world as we know it will be re-mapped. A four-foot sea level rise will mean no more Florida Keys and no Miami Beach; the New York City subway system and parts of NYC under water.
The same alarm bells that were rung for Greenland are now being rung for Antarctica. The results will be exponentially worse. We are talking 70 percent of the planet's fresh water. Imagine being in Manhattan watching skyscrapers and apartment buildings collapsing around you every day. This is what scientists are witnessing in WA currently. Nary a word is reported. Hillary at Chipotle wins that prize last week.
So what exactly is being done to address this Antarctic crisis? President Obama feels the urgency: "This is the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last with the opportunity to do something about it." But it falls on deaf ears with the loyal opposition.
Worldwide, it is about what you think. There is a lot of chatter but not much action. World leaders are not equipped to deal with issues of this magnitude and they all seem to be in paralysis mode. The fringe right in the USA continues to deny it exists and plays political gamesmanship. God forbid the current crop of political presidential candidates think globally for five minutes and spend a little time and effort with the subject.
A helicopter ride with the teams studying and recording the changes taking place in the region would be worthy of someone with presidential aspirations—especially if land masses and large population segments are going to be displaced around the world. Across the board, it's political gamesmanship of the worst sort—both nationally and internationally. Media coverage and conversation is pathetic on the subject. So we watch and wait while the biggest issue of our time unfolds in a vacuum.
Non-scientific pundits financed by big oil and the Koch Brothers make unsubstantiated claims that Antarctic ice is at its highest levels ever. The sad thing is that they can't even distinguish between sea and land ice as they make their proclamations and what that difference means. Rigorous science and hard data are not part of their vernacular.
The team at VICE spent time in Antarctica with glaciologist Dr. Eric Rignot from University of California at Irvine. Here are some key points taken from their visit:
- Glacial retreat is not limited to just Antarctica. Southern Chile is also seeing glacial retreat that is not part of the natural cycle. In the last 10 to 20 years glaciers are retreating more than in the last century. It's like changing the speed limit on the freeway from 55 mph to 550 mph.
- What is happening in Southern Chile is a precursor to what is going to happen on the Antarctic peninsula. We are in for some big trouble and big-time sea level rise according to Dr. Rignot. Extreme weather is taking hold in Southern Chile, too. A rain event categorized as "14 years of rain in one day" took place last month.
- There are constant NASA flights over Antarctica to measure ice volume and thickness with highly sensitive optical instruments, lasers, ice penetrating radar and more for data collection and ice mapping so changes can be tracked over time. Results from this massive amount of data collection over the years show rapid ice loss. Since 1992 ice has been retreating rapidly along with surface elevation.
- The westerly wind patterns in Antarctica in the last 40 years are stronger than in the past thousand years. The winds are circulating faster. And this pushes the subsurface warm water closer to the glaciers and closer to Antarctica. The end result, you push more ocean heat toward the glaciers thus the glaciers will retreat faster and faster which then turns into sea level rise.
- The glacier retreat rate in WA over the last 10 years has tripled their melt rates; some of the swiftest glacier retreat compared to any ice melt in the world. A kilometer per year. We are too far along to stop the WA sea ice retreat. It is going to fall apart, no matter what.
- There will be a one meter sea level rise in West Antarctic trouble spots like Pine Island Glacier, Thwaites, Haynes, Pope, Smith and Koehler Glaciers. That is just a start. If these areas retreat as predicted, it will mean the rest of Western Antarctica will follow, which would translate to 3-5 meter sea level rise: roughly 6-15 feet. One meter would be a global catastrophic event. This is something humanity is not ready for on a global scale, and it's about to happen, says Dr. Rignot.
- Atmospheric temps have risen 3 degrees Celsius since the 1950s in West Antarctica. It is one of the fastest growing temp areas on the planet, according to the British Antarctic Survey.
Dr. Andrew Clark of the British Antarctic Survey, Palmer Station Antarctica, concurs:
- Where climate change may not be obvious to us in the U.S. and Britain yet, you can come to Antarctica and see the changes before your eyes.
- For generations to come there is no stopping this trend. It will continue.
- Everyone will be impacted, but especially low-lying countries and land masses near the sea.
All of this gives me pause (a long one) for thought as we begin to track the impact around the world of this impending sea level rise and other new and noteworthy world weather events.
In closing, no wonder the traditional news business is in big trouble. The lack of coverage and sense of urgency is woeful—misplaced priorities big time. If there was ever a business model that needed radical and deep disruption, it's news. I could go on and on about what ails the news business and some prescriptions for change, having been in the business my entire adult life, but I will save that for another post. Save to say, we need nightly reports from West Antarctic on the events taking place there. How do we make Antarctica sexy and TMZ-worthy?