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A World Without Ice?

John Tarleton Jun 12, 2014

Since the Industrial Revolution began two centuries ago, the amount of carbon dioxide in the air has grown by 43 percent while the annual average global temperature has increased by 0.8 degrees Celsius (1.5°F).

Amid this seemingly minor increase in temperatures, we have seen in the past decade increasingly powerful hurricanes and typhoons, scorching droughts and heat waves, more intense forest fires, unprecedented flooding and even some low-lying Pacific islands starting to disappear beneath the waves.

Scientists warn that a good deal more warming (and a whole lot more trouble) is on the way. Even for people who acknowledge climate change is real, it’s still an abstraction in a world filled with more immediate problems. After all, how drastically can the physical world we’ve always known be altered?

On May 12, we received an answer.

In separate studies teams of scientists from NASA and the University of Washington announced that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) had “passed the point of no return” and would fully collapse within 200 to 1,000 years. Glaciologists had long worried that the WAIS was a “weak link” because key parts of it are situated in a bowl that lies below sea level and is vulnerable to contact with warming ocean waters. 

The initial disintegration of the WAIS is projected to increase sea levels by three feet by the end of this century and more than 10 feet when all is said and done. This will be the rough equivalent of a Hurricane Sandy-sized influx of water being the new normal on every coastline in the world. 

The story made headlines for a day or two. “For many, the research signaled that changes in the earth’s climate have already reached a tipping point,” the New York Times intoned, while Mother Jones called the news a “Holy Shit moment.” Then, like a low-lying coastal island, the story was quickly submerged beneath a flood of media coverage about Jay Z and Solange’s elevator smackdown.

Reading the reports from Antarctica, I felt a deep sense of loss. For New York (and other coastal cities), it’s a future death sentence.

For a surreal glimpse into this future, I visited a website that superimposes rising ocean waters onto street images from Google Earth. The quiet side street I live on in Alphabet City remained undisturbed, except for a two-story high river of water making soft lapping noises on my computer screen — I almost expected some of the neighborhood yuppies to zip by in kayaks heading to the nearest wine bar. 

• • •

Can this really be happening? Global warming brings to mind a bad 1950s science fiction movie starring an invisible, odorless gas, carbon dioxide, that gradually accumulates and threatens to change life on the planet as we know it. And now — cue the ominous musical score — we have a mysterious continent lying frozen at the bottom of the world that is beginning to shed its icy cover. 

Unlike the usual Hollywood blockbuster, this apocalypse will not be a single, spectacular moment but a slow inundation, a fraying of an interconnected global civilization upon which many of the world’s seven billion people depend. 

The news about climate change is often bad, but it has also spurred scientists to decipher the history of our planet and its climate systems. For the past quarter century, they have fanned out across the earth to study rocks, sediments, ice sheets, tree rings, corals, shells and microfossils and contemplated the clues left by the past. Their remarkable detective work has given us a much more nuanced understanding of how the Earth’s climate system has functioned (and malfunctioned) in the past and should inspire how we act while we still have time to make a difference.

• • •

In a nutshell, the Earth has fluctuated between climate regimes both much hotter and much colder than the current status quo. On at least one occasion in the Earth’s ancient past runaway global cooling left the planet fully covered in ice (“Snowball Earth”). In the past two million years, glaciers have repeatedly spread down from the North Pole and covered much of Europe, North America and Asia in what is known as the Ice Ages. 

However, for many of the past 300 million years, the Earth has been a good deal warmer than it currently is, and it has often been ice-free. Picture a torrid world suited to the likes of Brontosaurus and T-Rex with alligators swimming in the Arctic Circle and you get the idea. The switchover from a hothouse climate to the cooler one we’re familiar with began 34 million years ago at the transition from the Eocene to the Oligocene Epoch. This transition roughly coincides with when ice sheets began to form on Antarctica.

Since the last Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago, humans have enjoyed a stable climate with moderate temperatures. This allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to transition from hunting big game to cultivating plants. The rise of agriculture facilitated the emergence of urban centers and complex civilizations with all their blessings and curses. 

• • •

The fossil fuel-burning binge of the past two hundred years has put humanity’s long springtime at risk. In recent years, scientists have discovered that runaway global warming has occurred many times in the past. When it does, the Earth’s climate system barrels through a series of tipping points like a train running downhill without brakes. 

We may already be in the early stages of such a scenario. As just one example, hotter temperatures have made forests dryer and more likely to catch fire. Instead of pulling CO2 out of the air, all those burning trees put carbon back into the atmosphere. In 2012, heavy forest fires in North America deposited large amounts of soot on the Greenland Ice Sheet. This, in turn, meant now-darkened ice absorbed heat instead of reflecting it back into space. A record melt ensued that summer in Greenland. 

It remains to be seen how many tipping points we may pass through. CO2 levels are currently at 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. If current trends continue unabated, CO2 levels will rise to 600 ppm by the end of this century. Should we soar beyond 1,000 parts per million, a fully ice free world with sea levels 200 feet higher than at present becomes inevitable, says Peter Ward, a University of Washington paleontologist and author of several books on the history of mass extinctions. 

Runaway global warming has been the culprit behind four of history’s five mass extinctions, Ward says (the fifth occurred 65 million years ago when a giant meteor strike wiped out the dinosaurs). The doomsday scenario he describes runs like this: Sudden increases in carbon dioxide and methane (another powerful greenhouse gas) drive up temperatures by as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18°F). This disrupts deep ocean currents that circulate water between warmer and colder latitudes while a decrease in equator-to-pole temperature differences brings ocean winds and surface currents to a standstill. The oceans stagnate and become oxygen-starved ponds. They then give rise to green bacteria that release vast quantities of hydrogen sulfide — a colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs — into the atmosphere, with grim results. 

“It’s like a World War I shelling by gas,” Ward told The Indypendent. 

The worst of these episodes — the Permian-Triassic Extinction — occurred 252 million years ago and saw 96 percent of all species on Earth killed off. 

• • •

On May 29 French energy giant Total SA announced that it was indefinitely suspending an $11 billion project to develop the Joslyn tar sands mine in Canada’s northern province of Alberta. In its announcement the company cited escalating costs and limited access to pipelines. For climate justice and indigenous activists in the United States and Canada who have worked in recent years to thwart tar sands pipelines coming out of Alberta, it was a small but significant victory. 

People’s Climate March

Efforts to reach a new global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have been stalled for years. With world leaders coming to the United Nations for a September 23 climate conference, climate change activists are mobilizing for a massive protest they hope will inject a new sense of urgency into the deliberations. 

The People’s Climate March will be held in Manhattan on either Saturday, September 20 or Sunday, September 21, depending on the outcome of negotiations with the NYPD, said Leslie Cagan, a march coordinator. 

“The basic demand of this effort is that governments of the world need to take action,” Cagan said. “The time for talk-talk-talk is over.”

As of early June, more than 100 environmental, student, labor, community, Occupy and faith-based groups have signed on as co-sponsors. Hundreds more are expected to come on board. Organizers are putting out calls for people from across the United States to come to New York, and they will do an East Coast speaking tour closer to the event to rally interest. Cagan said she expects there will be a wide array of spin-off protests and educational and cultural events that will take place during the weeks before and after the main demonstration. 

“The potential for something big is there,” said Cagan, who has previously organized demonstrations hundreds of thousands of people strong against the U.S.-Soviet arms race, the invasion of Iraq and at the 2004 Republican National Convention. “We’d like this to stand out on that short list of the largest demonstrations in the country’s history.”

For more, see

— John Tarleton

In May and early June, three towns in Massachusetts and the Anglican Church of New Zealand moved to divest in fossil fuel stocks, the Obama administration announced plans to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants by 30 percent by 2030 and Barclays decided to downgrade the bond rating of all U.S. electric utilities because of the growing threat utilities face from the solar industry. 

Will these actions by themselves stop the fossil fuel industry in its tracks? Hardly. Nor can we entirely turn back the onset of climate change. However, these small victories remind us that we have the ability to do something while it still matters. 

If enough of us move from unease to active engagement, we may yet be able to rein in the fossil fuel companies and speed up the launch of a low-carbon, green economy. The technologies exist to make this happen and the millions of new jobs such a transition would create are sorely needed. 

Here in New York we have a unique opportunity to make our voices heard in advance of a September 23 climate conference for world leaders that will be hosted at the United Nations. A broad coalition of environmental, labor, student and community groups is organizing what they hope will be a massive demonstration to be held September 20 or 21 (see sidebar). 

“A loud movement — one that gives our ‘leaders’ permission to actually lead, and then scares them into doing so — is the only hope,” author and activist Bill McKibben wrote in an open invitation to join the protest published in Rolling Stone. 

It’s often difficult for people see how they can do anything about climate change. Hopefully a sea of people will fill the streets of Manhattan on September 20 or 21. And while much of our city is destined to someday disappear beneath the waves, it actually matters as much for us as our descendents whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet finishes dropping into the ocean in two centuries or 10. It will be the measure of whether in the early 21st century we really took responsibility for addressing climate change and the system that perpetuates it and began to save ourselves, or if we let business as usual run its course.


What New Yorkers Are Saying About Climate Change by Alex Ellefson

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