Greenland and the Climate Emergency

One of the signature features of our times is the dramatic disconnect between the speed with which the climate emergency is unfurling, on the one hand, and our ability to integrate this reality into our day-to-day life, on the other. In an article earlier this summer, David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (2019), reflected on what he called the “phenomenon of cascading climate impacts.”

An iceberg off the Greenland coast this summer. Photo by Harry and Rowena Kennedy licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

“How many natural disasters does it take to qualify as biblical, or apocalyptic, or at least to make us understand that we are living not through a bad week, or a bad year, but an unraveling climate system in which so much of what we take for granted as permanent features of the built environment may be turned into flotsam and jetsam by unprecedented weather?” he asked.

His haunting question came to mind this month as I read one report after another about the record ice melt in Greenland. Scientists estimate that by the end of the summer something like 440 billion tons of ice will have melted or calved off Greenland’s giant ice sheet.

In just five days from July 31 to August 3, more than 58 billion tons melted from the surface of the world’s largest island, 40 billion tons more than average for this time of year. That’s not taking into account the huge ice chunks breaking off into the ocean or warm water attacking the glaciers from below.

Just since the 1990s, Greenland’s rate of ice loss has increased from 41 gigatons per year to 286 gigatons per year during the period from 2010 to 2018. A recent study found that, if greenhouse gas emissions are not cut significantly in the next decade or two, Greenland could contribute up to two feet of global sea level rise by 2100.

How does one even begin to comprehend the enormity of this catastrophe?

Wallace-Wells suggests that our capacity for denial and compartmentalization may be such that we actually never come to grips with what we are doing and the threat that it poses to our very existence. Instead, we simply incorporate each new horrifying event into a “new normal” and move on. Even more disconcerting, Wallace-Wells thinks we may begin to find ourselves normalizing ” clear and terrifying patterns,” not just single instances of extreme weather events and climate disasters such as the India heat wave in June or the vast, ongoing fires in the Amazon.

At that point, obviously, our doom will be sealed. We must do everything possible, then, to keep reminding ourselves that nothing about what is happening to our climate and its impacts is normal. We must keep talking with each other and finding ways to act collectively that push back against any of this from becoming normal.

As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old activist who has called for a global climate strike on September 20, reminds us, ” Yes, we are failing, but there is still time to turn everything around. We can still fix this.”

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The Arctic Gets a New Ecosystem

As the Rolling Stones song goes, “You can’t always get want you want.” Fair enough. But sometimes, unfortunately, you get exactly the opposite of what you need. That’s certainly true of the Arctic this past winter. The last thing it needed was to break another warm weather record, yet that’s exactly what happened.

The extent of the warming has even caught scientists off guard. The record jump in temperatures “is probably the all-time surprise we’ve seen in the Arctic,” according to Jim Overland, a research oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.]

Needless to say, when you manage to surprise the folks who’ve spent their careers studying you, you’ve accomplished something. Not necessarily something good, but something. What does this mean for the Arctic?

Alaska Glacier2

What it means is that the Arctic gets a complete makeover. Yes, that’s right. A new ecosystem is emerging in the Arctic and it’s wreaking havoc with life in the region: thinner ice, shorter winters, new animals, new vegetation. In short, everything is changing. Everything.

“For the elders in the community, they’ve seen the entire ecosystem change,” said Fort Yukon local Ed Alexander in a Washington Post report last month. “A lot of it is a dramatic change. We have a whole other ecosystem here.”

Oops. We did that. The salmon are smaller, the caribou have changed their migration routes, new plant life is overgrowing usually clear dog sled trails, more forest fires are occurring, and even cardinals are showing up in Fort Yukon.

Think about that last news flash. It’s the rough equivalent of pink flamingos making an appearance on the shores of Cayuga Lake. Imagine the shock if that happened while you were walking along the Waterfront Trail. In the words of Mr. Alexander, “When you see a red bird for the first time in your life, you take note.”

And in case you think it’s only Alaska that has caught climate scientists by surprise, think again. Here’s what Mike MacFerrin, a University of Colorado climate scientist, had to say earlier this month about another well-known region in the Arctic: “melt in Greenland, over this wide an area, this early in the season, is not supposed to happen.”

In fact, the melt was taking place so early and so fast in Greenland that scientists thought something must be wrong with their data so they went back and checked. Get this: thermometers on and around the ice showed temperatures as high as 64 degrees Fahrenheit on April 11. That’s more than 35 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, which for that part of the world is more like a warm day in the summer.

Oops. We did that, too. To paraphrase the Pottery Barn rule, “we broke it, we own it.” But now that we own it will we ever own up to it? That’s the really big question, isn’t it?

The Planet Is Not the Same

We’ve all noticed the increase in extreme weather over the last few months. Almost two-thirds of the lower 48 states are now suffering from drought conditions, the Washington Post pointed out last week. Nearly all of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, and Illinois are in extreme or exceptional drought, making this the worst dry spell since the 1950s.

It’s not only been dry; the New York Times reported that the first six months of 2012 were the hottest since record keeping began in 1895. In early July, another Times article noted, the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted to a greater extent than ever observed in 30 years of satellite monitoring. About half of the surface of the ice sheet usually melts, but from July 8 to July 12, the ice melt reached 97 percent.

More and more people are making the connections between the extreme weather and climate change. The percentage of Americans who now believe that climate change is occurring rose to 70 percent in July, according to a University of Texas poll, and those insisting that it was not fell to 15 percent. A 2010 survey showed, in contrast, that only 52 percent of the American public thought that the climate was changing.

The following video from July 2012 shows Earth’s land surface temperature data from 1800 to 2009, tracking deviation from the mean temperature and overall global warming since the Industrial Revolution. For more information about this study visit http://berkeleyearth.org.

The story told in this video, even though it’s statistical, couldn’t be more dramatic. All one has to do is watch the spread of yellow, orange, and red across the map to understand that the planet is not the same place it was in 1800. The real question is, what are we going to do about it? In Bill McKibben’s words, “Climate change operates on a geological scale and time frame, but it’s not an impersonal force of nature; the more carefully you do the math, the more thoroughly you realize that this is, at bottom, a moral issue.”