The Greenland Ice Sheet Is Melting 600% Faster Than Any Model Predicted
Not the Uber ride to the future we were expecting...
by Gaius Publius
But at my back I always hear
Time's wingéd chariot hurrying near
Time's wingéd chariot hurrying near
Almost everyone I know is complacent about global warming. That is, they almost all know that it's a problem, that it's coming, and that it will be a big problem "sometime in the future." But that time in the future is about as distant as the time when a new-to-smoking teenager thinks she will come down with lung cancer. It's far enough in the future to equate to "never," or its closest approximation in emotional terms.
I've been consistently contending, however, in these pages and elsewhere, that things are now different, that (using our metaphor) our teenager will not reach her mid-twenties before she's sick, panicked and regretting her decision. She may not even see her twenties at all before passing away. Imagine, for example, that based on an examination of our teenager on the day she lit her first cigarette, her doctor discovered that because of her genetic makeup, her stage 4 diagnosis may be just a few short years away — perhaps five, perhaps ten, no more than ten to be sure.
Now imagine that he told her this, on that first-cigarette day. Would such a discovery change her behavior? It would certainly change mine. "Five years, ten at most" is time I can understand.
I believe this is the situation we're now in with respect to global warming.
We Don't Have "Forever" to Fix This
Almost everyone promising to address climate change does so on timelines that equate to "never," on timelines that imply that we have more than a generation — the emotional equivalent of "forever" — to fix the problem.
President Obama, for example, wanted to reduce emissions by moving to "20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030." Hillary Clinton was comfortable addressing climate change by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 33% by 2030.
For context, here's the EPA's analysis of the sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by sector:
Greenhouse gas emissions by sector (source: EPA)
From this information, three things are clear:
1. 2030 — nearly a generation away — is the emotional equivalent of "never" for anyone 50 years of age or older.
2. Even if Obama's or Clinton's target — not for emissions, just for power generation — were achieved, how would it bring down emissions from any other sources, such as from agriculture and transportation?
3. Which means that prior to this election, the nation's real plan was to wait until the 2050s, 2060s or later to achieve meaningful reductions (i.e., greater than 50%) in total emissions. Again, that's the emotional equivalent of "never" for any American adult living today.
And yet, "Time's wingéd chariot" is not called "wingéd" for nothing. What if the deadline for meaningful emissions reduction is almost here? What if the planet needs us to stop emissions in something like ten years, or risk losing completely its suitability for large-scale human habitation?
What if, in the next ten years, we actually watched — not imagined; witnessed — that suitability start to disappear before our eyes? Would facing that real possibility today change our behavior tomorrow? I would have to think yes, if enough people did it.
What if our last chance to meaningfully act is now? I'm asking everyone reading this — including all of our Beltway readers — to consider this question seriously. There are ways to defeat Trump's march to stage 4 climate chaos — truly there are — but not if no one wants to do it. Not if people think they can safely can hand off the consequences to the next generation.
Things are moving with surprising speed on the climate front. This generation is handing off the consequences ... to itself.
The Looming Death of the Greenland Ice Sheet
Now the news. The Greenland ice sheet is disappearing 600% faster than any model predicted. This adds to all of the other indications that global warming and its consequences are arriving consistently and surprisingly fast, that everyone making timelines for global warming should be expected to be, by default, "wrong to the slow side."
The following information comes from an interview with climate scientist David Barber on the Real News Network (h/t Naked Capitalism). The interview is below:
A few takeaways from the interview plus my comments. The full interview, however, is not that long and there's a transcript at the link.
First, from the start of the interview, why is global warming happening so much faster in the Arctic? (Emphasis is mine throughout.)
DIMITRI LASCARIS: I’d like to begin by asking you to describe for us, in general terms, the effect that the planet’s warming is having now on Arctic sea ice.And now from near the end, the news about the Greenland ice sheet:
DAVID BARBER: Well, a good way to think about it is the planet, as a whole, as it changes temperature, as it increases in temperature, it has a disproportionate effect as a function of latitude of the planet. We’ve increased by about 1 degree Celsius globally across the entire planet [depending on what you count as the "zero" mark]. But in the Arctic, we’ve increased, on average, two to three times that, relative to the rest of the planet.
And the reason for that is, the Arctic is an ocean covered by sea ice, and that sea ice is white. So, when you have solar insulation on the surface, it reflects that energy from the sun back to space when the white cover is there; when there is no white cover there, it’s a dark ocean and it absorbs that energy from the sun into the ocean. You then have to get rid of all that energy for sea ice to form in the fall, and that is one of the main reasons why we’re seeing an amplification of this global warming signal in the Arctic.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: ... If the global community satisfies its current emission reduction targets [per the Paris climate agreement], but does not exceed them, what kind of sea level rise do you think we will experience in this century?Destruction of the Greenland ice sheet six times faster than any model predicts is truly "Times wingéd chariot." We could easily see ice-free summers in the Arctic in the next five to ten years. And at the rate the Greenland ice sheet is disappearing, we could see a much colder Europe not long after that.
DAVID BARBER: Well, first of all, I’m not a specialist in sea level rise, so I’m a little bit uncomfortable with giving you numbers. I’d rather talk more about the implications of this. What we’re seeing in the Arctic with the current situation, is that the cryosphere — so those portions of the earth’s system that are frozen, so lake ice, sea ice, glacial ice - all of them are being affected. They’re all melting.
The Greenland ice sheet, we’re losing mass from it about 600% faster than what we expected. And of course, it’s the glacial ice masses that are really causing the sea level rise issue to be such an issue.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: … you said 600% more than what you expected. Do you mean, what you expected taking into account warming trends resulting from the introduction of CO2 into the atmosphere? Or, are you talking about historical melting, before the fossil fuels era?
DAVID BARBER: [...]. I think the quote that I’m thinking of, is 600% faster than what current models project. That’s based on greenhouse gas effects on the Greenland ice sheet. So, the situation is a serious one. Now, we also used to think that the Greenland ice sheet, and the ice sheets in the Antarctic, for instance, were a much slower process to lose mass to the ocean. We’re finding that they actually lose mass quite quickly, when you have ice shelves in particular, where these glacial features grow out over an ocean.
A Much Colder Europe
And a second point. Near the middle of the interview they discuss what this mass of fresh water from the Greenland ice melt will do to the weather of Europe, since Europe is unnaturally warm for its latitude. (London, for example, is about the same north latitude as Calgary. Paris is about the same north latitude as Winnipeg.)
The reason for Europe's relative warmth is very simple — the Gulf Stream.
From an animation showing the Gulf Stream's surface path only, the flow of dense salty water north; the return path of that same salty water is near the ocean floor (source)
Because the Gulf Stream is a "river" of very dense, very salty water, it is easily "shut off" by the introduction of a mass of much-less-dense fresh water. Look again at the position of the Greenland ice sheet (red mass near the top) relative to the Gulf Stream. There is evidence of a much colder Europe several times in the paleoclimate record thanks to a disrupted Gulf Stream.
Here's just a bit of that part of the discussion:
DIMITRI LASCARIS: It’s my understanding that at one point in the fairly distant past, after the melting of massive levels of ice in North America, there was a dramatic cooling in Europe as a result of a change in the temperature of the flow of waters in the northern Atlantic.For a sense of what "displacement of people due to climate" actually means, see this — "Climate Change in the Age of Trump: A 'Humanitarian Crisis of Epic Proportions'".
Is that a scenario, that kind of scenario, one with respect to which there’s a significant risk of a recurrence? That something along the lines of, for example, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could have a dramatic effect on the climate in Europe, or other parts of the Northern Hemisphere?
DAVID BARBER: Yeah. What you’re speaking of is what happens with meridional overturning in the North Atlantic. This is the way that deep water is formed on our planet’s oceans. And sea ice plays a very important role in that overall process of how ocean energy is circulated around the planet.
Now, historically, we’ve always felt that the amount of fresh water that you introduce to the North Atlantic had to be a very large amount of fresh water, for you to be able to slow down this overturning of this North Atlantic circulation. And of course, that fresh water historically has done that. And there is evidence from a paleoclimate record.
Paleoclimate records are when we go back and study different proxies of how the climate is changing. We can see, very dramatically, shifts, and very dramatic changes, based on the historical evidence in the Greenland ice sheet, for example. But also from other ice sheets around the planet, that there have been occurrences in the past where very significant, and relatively rapid changes have happened to our climate system. So, as climate scientists, we’re very concerned about that because it basically tells us that our planet is capable of shifting to another stable state relatively rapidly....
I think the take-home message for the public is that, we should not be experimenting with releasing very large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere more quickly than anything our planet has seen before in its historical past, because the climate is very capable of changing to another stable state and, of course, that’s not a good thing for us as a human species.
The displacement of people due to climate is a very big concern for us, because there are so many of us on the planet. And we don’t have a whole lot of, just sort of free room, to go and move to, once we have a climate problem in one part of the planet.
Finally, imagine a Europe in the midst of two refugee crises, not just one — a crisis in which people fleeing drought and war flood north from the Middle East (as is happening now), and a Europe cooling rapidly enough to cause people with the means to get out to do so.
Again, we may see such conditions, or conditions presaging them, long before the 2030s. Do we want to though? Because if we do get to that point, the point where the "writing is on the wall" for people not freaked out today, the force of change will then be fully upon us, and chaotic humanity is likely to make orderly adaptation dramatically less possible.
Is it an emergency yet? Tick tick tick.