Olivia Rosane

'Bad news': Unexpected melting of Greenland glacier could double sea-level rise projections

A glacier in the north of Greenland is melting faster and in a different way than scientists previously thought, and this has troubling implications for the future speed of global sea-level rise.

The new discovery was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday. The scientists found that warming ocean water had melted a cavity in the bottom of Petermann Glacier taller than the Washington Monument, as The Associated Press reported. If other glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica behave the same way, it could double predictions for how quickly the burning of fossil fuels will melt ice and raise sea levels.

"It's bad news," study author Eric Rignot, a University of California, Irvine (UCI), glaciologist, told the AP. "We know the current projections are too conservative."

The Petermann Glacier is a massive glacier in Northwest Greenland that contains enough ice to raise sea levels by a little more than a foot, the study authors noted. It is one of four Greenland ice masses that make up "the largest threat for rapid sea-level rise from Greenland in the coming decades" since they drain into the ocean below sea level.

Up until recently, however, the glacier was relatively stable, gaining about as much mass each year as it lost. That began to change in 2016, when the center of its grounding line began to edge backward at a rate of 0.6 miles per year.

A glacier's grounding line is the place where it moves from being supported by land to floating on the ocean, and it's this feature of Petermann that is the focus of the new study. The scientists from UCI, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Houston, Finland's Iceye mission, China's Tongji University, the German Aerospace Center, and the Italian Space Agency used satellite radar data to learn that the grounding line was moving significantly with the tides.

"Petermann's grounding line could be more accurately described as a grounding zone, because it migrates between 2 and 6 kilometers [approximately 1.2 to 3.7 miles] as tides come in and out," lead author Enrico Ciraci, a UCI assistant specialist in Earth system science and NASA postdoctoral fellow, said in a statement. "This is an order of magnitude larger than expected for grounding lines on a rigid bed."

This movement, in turn, accelerated ice melt.

"These ice-ocean interactions make the glaciers more sensitive to ocean warming," Rignot explained.

Between 2016 and 2022, the grounding line retreated by more than two miles. During that time, the warmer ocean water melted a 669-foot tall cavity at the bottom of the glacier. The melt rates around the cavity for 2020-21 were 50% greater than the melt rates for 2016-19, and, during 2022, the cavity stayed open the entire year.

What's especially concerning to the study authors is that what happens in Petermann may not stay in Petermann.

"These dynamics are not included in models," Rignot said.

If they were included, it could double sea-level rise projections, the study authors observed.

Hélène Seroussi, a glaciologist at Dartmouth College who was not involved with the study, cautionedThe Washington Post that models for ice melt and sea-level rise would not incorporate these findings overnight, since scientists still need to determine how many glaciers they really apply to. However, Seroussi acknowledged that the measurements were unprecedented.

"The melt rates reported are very large, much larger than anything we suspected in this region," Seroussi said.

Andreas Muenchow of the University of Delaware, a scientist who studies Petermann Glacier but was also not a part of the study, further told the Post that the high melt rates were observed over a relatively small area.

"My main takeaway is that models need to be improved," Muenchow said.

Democrats Say EPA Chief Pruitt Admitted to Breaking Law in Senate Hearing

Scandal-ridden Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt faced his third congressional hearing in less than a month Wednesday, admitting to an act that Democrats say broke federal law, The New York Times reported.

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If One Appointee Gets His Way, UN Could Recognize Healthy Environment as Human Right

A day after 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries signed a historic regional treaty protecting nature defenders, a United Nations (UN) rapporteur proposed taking environmental rights to the global level.

John H. Knox, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and the environment, delivered a statement March 5 to the Human Rights Commission in Geneva urging the UN to enshrine a healthy environment as a human right.

Knox, who has spent the past five years researching the intersection between human rights and environmental concerns, now calls for a UN resolution formally connecting the two.

"States should ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment in order to respect, protect and fulfill human rights, and they should respect, protect and fulfill human rights in order to ensure a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment," Knox wrote in his statement.

Knox further noted that 100 countries have already recognized a right to a healthy environment in their constitutions. The UN still has not.

One of the reasons Knox wants a formal resolution is to pressure governments to defend activists who protect natural and community resources, and are subject to violence and intimidation in many parts of the world.

According to a report by The Guardian and Global Witness, 197 nature defenders lost their lives in 2017 alone. "If we can't protect them, then how can we protect the environment we all depend on," Knox told The Guardian.

In his report, Knox explained how an unhealthy environment impacts children especially, since they are still developing and have very little control over their surroundings. Pollution and other hazards kill more than 1.5 million children under five every year.

"There can be no doubt that environmental harm interferes with a host of children's rights, including their rights to life, health and development, food, housing, water and sanitation, play and recreation," he wrote.

Sebastien Duyck, senior attorney at the Center for International Environmental Law, endorsed Knox's recommendation. "Seventy years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the global recognition of this right and the provision of effective remedies are now a matter of utmost urgency for frontline communities exposed to climate–induced impacts, environmental defenders, and vulnerable groups exposed to toxic and hazardous substances," he said in a press release.

This report comes three months from the end of Knox's tenure in the position; it is not known who will replace him, though some have suggested actor and climate activist Leonardo DiCaprio, The Guardian reported.

As part of his report, Knox outlined 16 "Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment" that lay out states' duties under human rights law as they pertain to a healthy environment.

They include responsibilities relevant to nature defenders, such as No. 4, "States should provide a safe and enabling environment in which individuals, groups and organs of society that work on human rights or environmental issues can operate free from threats, harassment, intimidation and violence," and No. 9, "States should provide for and facilitate public participation in decision-making related to the environment and take the views of the public into account in the decision-making process."

No. 15 urges countries to "comply with their obligations to indigenous peoples," who are often on the frontline of environmental struggles. Nearly 40 percent of the environmental defenders murdered in 2016 were indigenous, Global Witness reported.

Some principles hold up a citizen's rights to know the truth about their environment: No. 6 calls for "education and public awareness on environmental matters" and No. 7 for "public access to environmental information."

The Trump administration, with its disregard for the concerns and well-being of the Dakota Access Pipeline protesters and its censoring of climate-change information on government websites, would not fair well judged by such a framework if it were adopted.

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