Is Antarctica Gaining Ice? Is Global Warming Over?

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries lately from people who know that I follow global warming and climate change closely because a new study that was just published in the Journal of Glaciology is suggesting that Antarctica is gaining ice. How could that be happening if our planet is warming?

As is usually the case with something as complex as our planet’s climate, the truth is much more complicated than simply stating that Antarctica is gaining ice. Two reasons this study doesn’t contradict global warming: a) it only addresses parts of Antarctica rather than the whole continent, and b) the data used for analysis only went up to 2008, and Earth has warmed substantially since then.

The study used satellites to accurately measure how much snow had accumulated over time. The researchers found that enough snow had fallen over some parts of the southern continent that more than offset any ice that was lost from melting; that is, Antarctica appeared to be gaining ice. But even the authors themselves acknowledged that the rate of accumulation was constant but the rate of ice loss was increasing during their time of analysis. They even mention in their own conclusion that gain in some parts won’t be enough to keep up with loss. They projected that within 20 years they would balance out, and after that there would be more loss than gain.

And of course those conclusions are based on data that stopped seven years ago. Since then melting ice in Antarctica has accelerated substantially, enough that it has often received its own media attention. It turns out that every year Antarctica loses about 6 billion more tons of ice than it did the year before. In the last 20 years alone, the rate of loss has doubled.

But these facts notwithstanding, it should come as no surprise that a headline like “Antarctica is gaining ice” is enough to get everyone who denies global warming or hopes it’s not really happening are all over this study without having even read it. It’s easy to cherry-pick data and ignore contradictory evidence if it supports your biased ideology.

Truth be told, I think a lot of us would love these conclusions to be true. I don’t think it would mean the planet isn’t warming—there are too many pieces of evidence to the contrary—but perhaps it might at least provide some sort of hope that the process might move slower, that this might offer some sort of buffer.

But it’s time for a reality check: our planet is warming, it is losing ice, sea levels are rising, and oceans are acidifying. The last thing we need is for people to ignore these facts because one tiny misunderstood nugget of information can mislead them into thinking these things aren’t really happening.

Should We Burn All of Our Fossil Fuels?

“The definition of insanity is repeating the same behaviours and expecting a different outcome.”
—Albert Einstein

Want to know something really scary? Scientists now believe that the Antarctic ice sheet contains enough ice that if all of it melted, the amount of water added to our planet would lead to a sea-level rise of 58 metres.

Wow! Good thing that we’d never be able to melt all of that ice, right? Wrong. These same scientists have shown that if we burn all of the fossil fuels available and attainable, it will melt the Antarctic ice sheet completely. It won’t happen overnight mind you, or even over the next few generations for that matter. But it’s projected that burning all of our planet’s fossil fuels will lead to cumulative emissions of 10,000 gigatonnes of carbon. (We currently add about 36 gigatonnes a year for perspective, so this will take a few centuries to achieve.)

But if we burn everything available—something fossil fuel companies would love given how much profit it would yield—it will lead to an ice-free Antarctica and sea-level rise initially at a  rate of more than three metres per century for the next thousand years.

It would make sense that we should reduce the combustion of fossil fuels sooner rather than later. Given the fact that our greenhouse gas emissions linger in our atmosphere for centuries, one of the best strategies we can adopt now is to stop adding to the problem. Sure, someday a future technology will be able to somehow siphon the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but that’s not an excuse and certainly not permission to ignore the problem and whatever solutions are available to us now.

The scientific paper was published in Science Advances and is available here.

Evidence of A Warming Planet

“The pressure’s high, just to stay alive, ‘Cause the heat is on.”
Glenn Frey

For various reasons, the poles are more sensitive to global warming. One reason at the Arctic is that melting sea ice means more darker ocean to absorb light energy and less ice to reflect sunlight energy back. But there are other more complicated reasons that contribute to the phenomenon like Hadley cells and circulatory patterns in our atmosphere that help carry heat away from the equator and toward the poles.

Regardless of whether you understand the mechanisms behind it or not, it’s important to appreciate the outcome. I’ve posted blogs numerous times about melting Arctic ice, but it’s time to point out what’s happening now at the South Pole. Satellite observations spanning 1994 to 2012 have revealed a significant decline in the massive ice shelves that help make up Antarctica, and it’s a decline that’s accelerating as time goes on. Some ice shelves have shrunk by as much as 18 percent. These melting ice shelves will contribute substantially to global sea level rise.

As if to help emphasize this point, last week Antarctica reached a temperature of 63.5 degrees Fahrenheit, or 17.5 degrees Celsius, what could well be its warmest temperature since our species has walked the planet. It broke the previous record of 63.3 degrees which was reached just the day before. (I suppose this is as much of a heat wave as Antarctica can get.) Prior to that, the highest-known recorded temperature on Antarctica was 62.6°F set way back in 1976.

Sadly, the continent of Antarctica isn’t unique when it comes to breaking all-time high temperature records. This year so far, five countries and territories have either tied or broke such records.

Which all boils down to one important question: How long do we have to watch record-breaking temperatures and ice melting that has been frozen for millennia before the deniers will get it?

Dr. Eric Rignot's Elevator Pitch on Climate Change

Dr. Eric Rignot is Professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine,[and a principal scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His main area of study has been changes in the masses of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. He has identified that the speed at which glaciers in Greenland are melting is much faster than had been expected. Last year, he was the principle author on a famous study which found that the melting of glaciers in the Amundsen Sea in Antarctica appears to be unstoppable. In his words, these glaciers have “passed the point of no return.”

Here is Dr. Rignot’s elevator pitch on climate change. See what you think.

West Antarctica: Past the Point of No Return

“If Antarctica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it.”
Andrew Denton

Bad news for anyone who thinks global warming isn’t happening: observational data have been able to conclude that not only is the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica retreating, it’s a process that can’t be stopped. So some ice falls into the ocean, so what. No big deal, right?

Wrong. This event will have major repercussions.  First and foremost, sea levels will rise about one metre globally. And as if that isn’t enough, its disappearance into the sea will likely trigger complete collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, and that means additional sea level rise of somewhere between three and five metres. Given that so many people live near coasts as a byproduct of the way our civilization evolved, this means millions of people will eventually have to leave their homes.

So how far into the future will this happen? Continue reading