What should be like a snowcone is becoming more like a popsicle, speeding up the runoff from the melting ice sheet.
When the remnants of Europe’s second summertime heat wave migrated over Greenland in late July, more than half of the ice sheet’s surface started melting for the first time since 2012. A study published Wednesday in Nature shows that mega-melts like that one, which are being amplified by climate change, aren’t just causing Greenland to shed billions of tons of ice. They’re causing the remaining ice to become denser.
“Ice slabs”—solid planks of ice that can span hundreds of square miles and grow to be 50 feet thick—are spreading across the porous, air pocket-filled surface of the Greenland ice sheet as it melts and refreezes more often. From 2001 to 2014, the slabs expanded in area by about 25,000 square miles, forming an impermeable barrier the size of West Virginia that prevents meltwater from trickling down through the ice. Instead, the meltwater becomes runoff that flows overland, eventually making its way out to sea.
As the ice slabs continue to spread, the study’s authors predict more and more of Greenland’s surface will become a “runoff zone,” boosting the ice sheet’s contribution to global sea level rise and, perhaps, causing unexpected changes.
“We’re watching an ice sheet rapidly transform its state in front of our eyes, which is terrifying,” says lead study author Mike MacFerrin, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
A ‘turtle shell’ for ice
It’s easy to think of Greenland as a solid, impenetrable hunk of ice. But in reality about 80 percent of the ice sheet’s surface is like a snowcone: A dusting of fresh snowfall covers a thick layer of old snow, called firn, that’s slowly being compressed into glacier ice but still contains plenty of air pockets. When the top of this snow cone melts in the summer, liquid water percolates down into the firn, which soaks it up like a 100-foot-thick sponge.
MacFerrin and his colleagues got their first hint that the firn may be losing its absorbency in the spring of 2012, when they were drilling boreholes through the firn in southwest Greenland. They started finding dense, compacted layers of ice in core after core, just below the seasonal snow layer. It was, MacFerrin says, as if a “turtle shell” had formed over the firn.
MacFerrin and his colleagues immediately wondered whether that shell might be preventing meltwater from percolating into the firn.
“That was May of 2012,” MacFerrin says. “And July was this record-breaking melt year, and we got our answer very quickly.”
That summer, for the first time on record, meltwater from this part of Greenland visibly started to flow away as runoff.
Realizing they had witnessed something significant, the researchers set about drilling more cores over a larger region to see how extensive the ice shell was. They discovered that it spanned a transect 25 miles long and was having widespread effects on local hydrology.
Those findings, published in 2016 in Nature Climate Change, were the springboard for the new study. Using radar data from NASA’s IceBridge airborne campaign, as well as ground-based surveys, MacFerrin and his colleagues have now created a first-of-its-kind map of ice slabs across the entire surface of Greenland.
Based on modelling results, the researchers think the shell began to form and spread widely in the early 2000s. As of 2014, it covered some 4 percent of Greenland’s surface, according to the new analysis. Every summer that extensive melting occurs, it gets thicker and spreads inland to colder, higher ground.
“Every handful of years, these big melt summers are doing a number on the firn,” MacFerrin says. “That’s causing this whole process to grow inland pretty quickly.”
Sea level rise and unexpected consequences
Ice slabs have already caused Greenland’s runoff zone to expand by about 26 percent, according to the new study. So far the additional runoff has only added about a millimeter to global sea levels.Greenland now contributes a little under a millimeter per year to rising sea levels, through a combination of icebergs breaking off glaciers and melt occurring at the surface and base of the ice sheet.
But if Greenland’s surface hardens more, runoff could rise dramatically. Under a worst-case scenario where carbon emissions continue to climb until the end of the century, the researchers calculated that ice slab proliferation could add up to 3 inches of sea level rise by 2100, boosting the ice sheet’s overall sea level rise contribution by nearly a third. In both a middle-of-the-road scenario where emissions peak by mid-century and the high emissions one, the amount of runoff from Greenland’s interior roughly doubles by century’s end.
But more runoff is only one potential consequence of the transformation taking place in Greenland’s ice. Kristin Poinar, a glaciologist at the University of Buffalo who wasn’t involved in the study, pointed out that slabs of solid ice aren’t nearly as reflective as bright white snowfall.
“And so, if we start getting these ice slabs forming near the ice sheet’s surface, it could potentially…cause the ice sheet to absorb more solar radiation and warm up,” she says. “And that would create more ice slabs.”
And runoff from ice slabs doesn’t have to flow into the ocean, said Indrani Das, a glaciologist at Columbia University who wasn’t involved in the study. She worries about how it could seep into the large crevasses that exist at lower elevations on the ice sheet. From there, the runoff could, potentially, flow all the way down to bedrock, lubricating the zone where the ice makes contact with it.
“That could make the ice sheet flow faster,” Das says, which could cause glaciers to spill their contents into the ocean more quickly, like ice cream sliding off a piece of cake.
To Poinar, the most significant contribution of the new study is that it will allow scientists to improve their projections of future sea level rise, giving coastal communities the information they need to prepare. At the same time, the study highlights the fact that the more carbon we spew into the atmosphere, the more we’re likely to transform Earth’s northern ice sheet in insidious and unexpected ways. And that could have consequences that are difficult to anticipate.
“We have never observed an ice sheet behaving this way before,” Poinar says. “It’s unprecedented in human scientific history.”
THE BOTTOM OF THE ATLANTIC OCEAN — Forty miles off the coast of North Carolina, the 274-foot research vessel Atlantis paced a dark, empty swath of ocean in evenly spaced lines as the crew pinged sound waves into the deep. A quarter-mile below, plumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, rose from the seafloor.
The underwater site, named Pea Island after an area of the Outer Banks, is one of the hundreds of active methane seeps discovered off the Atlantic coast since 2012. No human had ever explored this particular underwater world. Samantha Joye, an oceanographer and microbiologist, was about to change that.
She strolled into the ship’s computer lab at 6 a.m., a thermos of tea in hand. She looked anxious as she checked in on what the sonar had turned up.
Jason Chaytor, a marine geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, had spent half the night mapping the ocean floor. He pointed to the columns of bubbles visible in the rainbow-colored images. The largest of the plumes extended some 250 meters from the bottom, about halfway to the surface.
“You’re going to visit this first,” Chaytor told her.
Joye leaned over his shoulder and squinted through purple-framed glasses. A mad scientist grin washed over her face.
The site is what’s known as a cold seep, an area where methane and other hydrocarbons naturally eject from the seafloor. Cold seeps are home to diverse communities of organisms, including Joye’s favorite: beggiatoa, a large, thread-like bacteria.
Along with their ability to capture energy from poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas, beggiatoa form colonies, or “mats,” that are hot spots for hitchhiking microorganisms that feast on methane. Working together, these communities of microbes act as biological filters, blanketing active seeps and limiting the amount of gas that enters the water column and, more importantly, the atmosphere.
The seeps along the Atlantic’s continental margin are not new, but recent advances in sonar imaging technology have given scientists the tools to spot them. (Hundreds more have been found in recent years off the coast of the Pacific Northwest.) The novelty of the technology means scientists lack the baseline data that would allow them to compare the amount of methane leaking today to, say, the amount leaking 20 or 200 years ago.
The two-week Atlantis expedition was part of project Deep Search, a five-year government-funded study to explore cold seep, canyon and coral ecosystems in this largely uncharted swath of the deep Atlantic. The team of more than 20 scientists set out from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in mid-August 2018 with plans for a dozen manned submersible dives off the southeast Atlantic coast ― most of them to uncharted sites.
Joye, a professor at the University of Georgia, hoped the mission would further scientists’ understanding of methane seeps, their potential for contributing to global warming and the complex microbial communities that inhabit these systems.
In 2006, while exploring in the Gulf of Mexico, Joye was part of a team that discovered a massive mound of methane hydrate, a solid, ice-like form of the gas that is widespread in deep marine sediments. The feature resembled a dragon’s head and was named “sleeping dragon.” For Joye, it’s an apt metaphor for the apocalyptic situation that would unfold if a giant burst of methane into Earth’s atmosphere ever occurred.
“We are waking up the methane dragon,” Joye said. “And that’s a dragon that we really want to keep in the box.”
Methane, or CH4, is part of Earth’s natural carbon cycle, emitted from wetlands, soil, volcanoes, wildfires, rice paddies and even by termites. In the ocean, methane is produced when microorganisms or geologic processes deep in the earth’s crust break down organic matter that settles to the seafloor, including dead fish, krill and bacteria.
It is also a powerful super-pollutant, roughly 30 times more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide over a century in the atmosphere. Although far less prevalent in Earth’s protective shield than carbon dioxide, methane accounts for about one-fifth of human-caused planetary warming. Since 1750, methane concentrations have risen more than 150% ― a spike driven by fossil fuel production, agriculture and deforestation.
In both the deep sea and Arctic permafrost, a massive amount of methane is trapped in hydrate. This otherworldly substance, also called “methane ice” or “fire ice,” forms when methane combines with water at low temperatures and high pressure. It represents one of the largest carbon reservoirs on Earth, sequestering an estimated 16 to 20% of all carbon.
“Think about that,” Erik Cordes, the expedition’s chief scientist and a deep-sea ecologist at Temple University, said as Atlantis headed out to sea from Woods Hole. “All the forests on the planet, all the living organisms on the planet together, have less carbon in them than there is in methane hydrate.”
Hydrate remains stable under conditions like those found in the frigid deep sea. But if exposed to warmer temperatures or a drop in pressure, it can turn to gas, expanding by approximately 180 times its volume. The concern for some scientists is that as global climate change thaws Arctic permafrost and heats up the oceans, these hydrates will break down, setting off a potentially calamitous feedback loop.
We are waking up the methane dragon. And that’s a dragon that we really want to keep in the box. – Samantha Joye, oceanographer and microbiologist
Enough methane in the ocean could deplete the water of oxygen and wreak havoc on marine life, while a sharp rise in atmospheric methane would trigger rapid and cataclysmic warming.
That scenario keeps Joye up at night. She’s been studying methane seeps and hydrothermal vents for two decades and says she’s seen enough to know that these systems are poised to respond to the rapid changes now unfolding in the oceans. Climate-driven hydrate collapse, she stressed, is not some hypothetical.
“I hate to say it’s a ticking time bomb because I don’t want to scare the shit out of people,” she said. “But it scares the shit out of me.”
In 2016, a decade after first documenting the “sleeping dragon,” Joye returned to the site with a film crew from the BBC to find that the hydrate mound ― one of the largest ever documented ― had completely vanished. Similar deposits at other nearby locations were also gone, replaced by craters, or “pockmarks,” where the once-frozen methane exploded from the seabed, Joye said. The water temperature near the seafloor was several degrees above normal.
“We know it’s hydrate destabilization,” she said, adding that she and others had tried unsuccessfully to secure funding for long-term study. “We need to make people understand that we really need to be monitoring these things.”
Surges in atmospheric methane have been blamed for past planetary warming events. The most severe, the “The Great Dying,” occurred 250 million years ago and wiped out approximately 90% of all species. Among the controversial scientific theories about what may have caused it is hydrate degradation. Another is a massive bloom of methane-producing microbes, as a team of researchers at MIT detailed in a 2014 paper.
Scientists have also found signs of a large, sudden burp of methane gas from the Arctic seafloor during a period of extreme warming more than 100 million years ago, thought to be caused by hydrate destabilization. And hydrates have been implicated in a period of extreme warming 55 million years ago, called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when global temperatures increased as much as 14.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
I hate to say it’s a ticking time bomb because I don’t want to scare the shit out of people. But it scares the shit out of me. – Joye
Unlike in previous episodes of climate upheaval, the activities of a single species are what’s driving the current crisis, which has the potential to affect every corner of the planet. While carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the most immediate threat, the reality is that humans have little understanding of the many complex systems that could be disrupted in the process. The microbial communities found at methane seeps are just one of them.
At a depth of 500 meters, Pea Island sits at the upper limit of hydrate stability, what scientists call the “feather edge,” making it extremely susceptible to rising ocean temperatures. There are untold numbers of similar seeps around the globe.
“Pea Island is sort of the poster child of change in the oceans with respect to methane,” Joye said.
Other scientists and methane experts are less concerned about a runaway CH4 scenario from hydrate ― at least anytime soon. Carolyn Ruppel, who leads the U.S. Geological Survey’s Gas Hydrates Project, is among those who have pushed back against fears of a looming “methane time bomb.” Her research shows that the vast majority of known methane hydrate ― more than 95% ― exists in the deep ocean, below 1,000 meters, and that a large-scale release would require hundreds or even thousands of years of warming.
Additionally, ocean physics greatly limits the amount of gas that can reach the atmosphere, Ruppel explained in a phone interview. The gas dissolves into seawater on its way up through the water column, where microbes convert it into CO2. A bubble released from a depth where hydrate can exist has very little chance of retaining methane all the way to the surface, she said.
In a monumental 2016 paper, Ruppel and John Kessler, an oceanographer at the University of Rochester in New York, wrote that “there is no conclusive proof that hydrate‐derived methane is reaching the atmosphere now.” Yet they acknowledged there are many locations where methane ice is vulnerable to warming, specifically in the Arctic and on upper continental slopes, which “could be a major source of atmospheric CH4 under certain catastrophic, but unlikely, circumstances.”
It’s obvious why methane hydrate has alarmed the public. But Ruppel says it is the shallow water seeps, those on upper continental shelves and not associated with hydrate, that have a greater capacity to inject methane into Earth’s atmosphere.
“What I tell young people now is, if you really want to make a career for yourself, don’t worry so much about the deeper water seeps,” she said. “Worry about what methane is coming out of the shelves.”
Joye is not one to sugarcoat what she sees or what she makes of it. Her no-nonsense approach has earned her both praise and rebuke and has pitted her against powerful players.
When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 and unleashed more than 200 million gallons of crude, Joye had already been studying natural seeps and microbial life in the region for 15 years. Within weeks of the deadly catastrophe, she organized a research team to collect samples aboard the Pelican, the first scientific vessel sent to the blowout site.
It was during that first mission that the team discovered large plumes of oil and methane forming deep in the Gulf, a sign that the spill was far worse than BP had indicated. BP insisted the plumes didn’t exist: “The oil is on the surface,” Tony Hayward, the company’s chief executive, said at the time. Other researchers later validated Joye’s finding.
Joye also sparred with the Obama administration. In August 2010, the White House released a government report that estimated 76% of the oil had dissolved or been cleaned up. Less than two weeks later, Joye co-authored a report that found nearly 80% of the oil was still in the water and a threat to the Gulf ecosystem. Government scientists maintained that their numbers were accurate.
Joye emerged from the disaster ― the largest marine oil spill in history ― as something of a scientific superhero, the brainy introvert willing to share data that many felt that the government and BP were keeping under wraps.
And she’s kept at it. Five years later, Joye co-published a study that concluded the 1.8 million gallons of chemical dispersants cleanup crews dumped into the Gulf likely made the situation worse. Rather than breaking the oil into smaller droplets that oil-eating bacteria could more easily consume, the chemicals slowed the microbes’ ability to degrade oil, she found.
Fellow scientists say she’s “a force of nature,” a researcher who has made “heroic efforts to communicate science to the general public.”
Cordes and Joye have been collaborating ever since their first cruise together in 2001. He said there are few people who can keep up with Joye’s level of energy.
“She’s one of the most creative scientists that I’ve known,” he said. “While she’s gathering data, she’s also interpreting it and throws ideas out there. And she has an amazing ability to be right more often than not.”
A little before 8 a.m., Joye and USGS microbiologist Chris Kellogg climbed to the top of a narrow staircase on Atlantis’ stern and kicked off their sneakers. Kellogg waved to fellow researchers watching from the deck. Joye flashed a modest smile. The two scooted down a small ladder into Alvin, a three-person deep-sea submersible most famous for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic in 1986. On its front end are two robotic arms, numerous cameras and a basket for stashing the samples it collects.
After the hatch on Alvin was sealed, a giant hydraulic crane plopped the sub into the sea, and the sub’s crew descended into the dark.
Atlantis, built in the mid-1990s and owned by the U.S. Navy, accommodates more than 50 people, has six onboard labs and was designed specifically to support Alvin. The ship stays in constant contact with the sub using an acoustic telephone. If you’re below deck during a dive, you can hear the radio chatter from the sub buzzing through the ship’s steel hull.
Eight hours later, Alvin dropped a large set of weights and slowly rose back to the surface, the first samples of the cruise in tow. Once the sub and samples were onboard, an excited team of scientists scrambled to unload quill worms, a pair of starfish, carbonate rocks and samples of muddy sediment and beggiatoa. Dead squid dangled from Alvin’s exterior, victims of their own curiosity.
The dive went well; good visibility, a manageable current and lots of specimens. But Joye was frustrated. Not only was the team unable to glimpse the methane plume it had seen on the radar, but several mud samples, called cores, degassed on their way to the surface, making it harder to profile the sediment inside. Joye suspected they contained chunks of hydrate, judging from how violently they had erupted.
Fortunately, the samples weren’t ruined. After a day in the ship’s cold room, a walk-in refrigerator that simulates the frigid deep ocean, the beggiatoa had wriggled their way to the top of the mud in search of oxygen, forming beautiful white geometric structures. Still sporting an astronaut-like jumpsuit for working in the cold room, Joye placed a dish underneath a microscope and instructed me to have a peek. Up close, the beggiatoa looked like hollow strings of spaghetti. Inside a few, yellow molecules of sulfur popped against a backdrop of dark mud. A translucent worm burrowed under the bacteria, making it roll and turn.
“It’s like gold from the bottom of the ocean,” Joye said. “White gold.”
The methane seeps that these bacteria inhabit are unforgiving environments. They are also diverse and vital ecosystems, part of the foundation of the ocean food web that hundreds of millions of people rely on for food and income.
Amanda Demopoulos, a deep-sea benthic ecologist at USGS, hopes to drive that human connection home.
On most evenings during the cruise, she could be found processing seafloor sediment samples in the ship’s wet lab. It’s tedious work that involves slicing cores of mud into precisely measured sections, then carefully funneling the sediment into small bottles for future analysis. A single core can contain hundreds of microorganisms, which the team identifies and documents. These tiny critters are important indicators of ecosystem health and break down organic matter that cycles to the seafloor. If they disappear, that material can create environments where nothing can live, Demopoulos said.
“We want healthy earthworms in our gardens,” she said. “We need healthy animals in the ocean, too.”
On Day 10 of the cruise, I got to join Joye on a “dragon hunt” to a gas seep more than 130 miles off North Carolina’s coast and nearly a mile and a half below the surface.
A submersible dive is like a slow-motion fall through a distant galaxy. Outside our 3-inch titanium shell of safety, a frenzy of glowing bioluminescent critters — shrimp, jellyfish and chains of egg-like animals called salps — flickered, scurried and burst as they collided with Alvin’s robotic arms. Joye described it as nature’s ultimate fireworks display.
“The Fourth of July can’t hold a candle to a submarine dive,” she said as we made our way to the bottom.
The descent into total darkness lasted 70 minutes. Your mind can’t help but run wild thinking about what creatures might be lurking just out of sight. On a murky canyon dive a few days earlier, a 20-foot sixgill shark had bumped into the front of the sub.
Pilot Jefferson Grau flipped on the sub’s exterior lights, giving us our first glimpse of the ocean floor. It was alien and beautiful, startling and mesmerizing ― made even more so by the spacey music playlist Grau had cued up. At this depth, Alvin actually shrinks slightly as the pressure outside reaches 3,200 pounds per square inch. The amount of force it would take to open the hatch is roughly equivalent to lifting a fully loaded 747 jet.
This site we were visiting, Blake Ridge, is relatively well-studied and rich in methane hydrate, with numerous active seeps. Joye directed Grau, who not only drove the sub but steered a small arm that controlled the robotic arms out front. As the two worked, I did my best to film what was happening outside using a small joystick that controlled exterior cameras, jotting down times and depths.
Extensive beds of mussels, some big enough to hold a newborn child, and piles of ghost-white clamshells littered the seafloor. A bright red Spanish dancer, a type of sea slug, fluttered by. A brittle star tossed up sand as it scampered away. Our presence seemed to confuse purple octopuses, crabs and rattail fish — a bizarre creature with bulging eyes, a long tail and a sharklike fin on its back. It was almost certainly the first time any of these creatures had seen light.
Communities of bacteria that use chemosynthesis, a process similar to photosynthesis, to convert inorganic chemical compounds like methane and hydrogen sulfide into energy fuel life in the deep sea. The mussels and clams have a symbiotic relationship with these bacteria, providing them a safe place to live in return for food.
Joye and I kept our eyes peeled for bubbles, or if we were lucky, a chunk of hydrate ― the dragon itself ― which often forms under rock overhangs.
She let out a shriek when she spotted a large bed of mussels, often a telltale sign of the presence of hydrate. “I think we’re about to hit our nirvana!” Joye said as Grau brought the sub in for a closer look.
The mussels turned out to be dead, possibly because the supply of methane in that particular spot had shut off. Cold seeps are variable systems. As Ruppel explained, they have plumbing systems that resemble tree branches below the seafloor, and the amount of gas flowing through any one pathway can fluctuate.
Joye jotted “deathbed” in her dive log, noting our depth of 2,169 meters.
We never caught a glimpse of methane bubbles or hydrate that day, but returned to Atlantis with one of the largest hauls of mud samples from the two-week cruise ― enough to keep Joye’s and Demopoulos’s labs busy for months.
While working late one evening in one of Atlantis’ cluttered labs, Joye made a startling discovery in seawater samples from Pea Island. Her students had been busy extracting gas from the water to study the content, which she then put through a gas chromatograph, a sophisticated device that separates a mixture of gases into individual components.
Her jaw dropped as the machine, which she’d nicknamed “Bucky,” kicked back the data.
One sample after another showed that the methane at and above Pea Island was off the charts. Joye wondered if her students were playing tricks on her. Or, even worse, that trusty old Bucky was broken.
She ran the samples again, but the numbers were solid. Methane concentrations at the Pea Island seep were among the highest she’d ever seen.
When she had more time back in her lab at the University of Georgia to crunch the numbers, what she found was even more alarming. Even though the microbes at Pea Island are gobbling up methane about 10 times faster than rates documented at natural seeps in the Gulf, the concentrations are so high that it would take them about 618 days to consume it all ― and that’s if the supply of methane suddenly stopped.
In other words, the microbes at Pea Island aren’t nearly keeping up. And the levels of methane were high in samples throughout the water column, all the way to the surface.
“That suggests that some of it’s going to get into the atmosphere,” Joye said. “That’s very scary.”
Over the last year, Joye has been trying to figure out what those findings mean. We know how methane in the deep ocean behaves under normal conditions, but current climate conditions are anything but normal. The global average temperature is already 1.1 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The world’s oceans have absorbed an estimated 93% of the excess heat. Meanwhile, Atlantic currents have slowed by an estimated 15% since the mid-20th century.
Joye’s preliminary conclusion is that an increase in hydrate breakdown from ocean warming and a weakening of ocean circulation could lead to a marked increase in methane emissions off the Atlantic coast. She plans to make that argument in an upcoming scientific paper.
Since the cruise, Joye and her students have been exposing the methane-eating microbes to different conditions, trying to better understand what makes them tick and how they might respond under future climate scenarios. This research could prove important for possiblehuman intervention, just as scientists are now exploring cloud seeding and geoengineering to save coral reefs from deadly bleaching events. Maybe scientists can tweak bacteria to make them more efficient at consuming methane, or maybe they can introduce an existing nutrient to stimulate their growth and activity.
Joye’s hunch is that there is a naturally occurring organism out there that, with a little help from humans, could be a fighting force against a potential future methane surge. Her research in the Gulf of Mexico is one reason she thinks that’s possible, as methane-eating bacteria flourished in the initial wake of the oil spill, consuming gas at the highest rate ever recorded in the open ocean.
“Finding that magic organism that’s able to do all the wild metabolisms that we are dreaming of having the capability to do out there ― that’s motivation for doing this work,” she said.
Politicians, scientists, and others gathered in Borgarfjörður, Iceland, northeast of Reykjavik on Sunday to mourn the loss of the Okjökull glacier, laying a plaque warning of the impact of climate change, the BBC reported.
Okjökull, along with many other Icelandic glaciers, took serious hits from warming summers over the past two decades. It was officially declared inactive by glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson in 2014, when he discovered that snow was melting before it could accumulate on the cap, and there was no longer enough pressure being built up to keep the glacier moving.
Scientists Wrote a Eulogy for Iceland’s First Glacier Lost to Climate Change. That may sound like an Onion headline, but alas, it is not. We’ve reached the point in our wild… Read more
At that point, the word jökull (meaning glacier or ice cap) was eliminated from its name, leaving the site formally designated by the name of the shield volcano it was located on, Ok. According to Slate, Rice University anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer were disturbed to see that the elimination of the glacier was almost entirely ignored in the English-language news media, filming a documentary titled Not Ok and later concluding the glacier’s demise should be commemorated.
Attendees at the event included Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson, and former Irish President Mary Robinson, according to the BBC. The plaque itself reads, in both English and Icelandic:
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. In the next 200 years, all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and know what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.
Author Andri Snaer Magnason, who wrote the words on the plaque, told the BBC, “This is a big symbolic moment. Climate change doesn’t have a beginning or end and I think the philosophy behind this plaque is to place this warning sign to remind ourselves that historical events are happening, and we should not normalise them. We should put our feet down and say, okay, this is gone, this is significant.”
Calling Okjökull’s disappearance a “real loss,” Boyle told the BBC, “Plaques recognise things that humans have done, accomplishments, great events. The passing of a glacier is also a human accomplishment—if a very dubious one—in that it is anthropogenic climate change that drove this glacier to melt.”
Glaciers are in bad shape worldwide, from North America and Europe to Greenland and Antarctica. A study in Nature this year estimated that glaciers lost over 10 trillion tons of ice between 1961 and 2016, which is enough volume to cover the entirety of 48 lower states in the U.S. in four feet of snow; another study published in The Cryosphere estimated the Alps will be stripped of 90 percent of its glaciers by the year 2100. According to the Associated Press, the lead author of the first study, World Glacier Monitoring Service at the University of Zurich director Michael Zemp, said that glaciers are disappearing at five times the rate they were in the 1960s. Zemp added that in central Europe, the Caucasus region, western Canada, and in the lower 48 states, “at the current glacier loss rate, the glaciers will not survive the century.”
Just as troubling, some studies have found that coastal glaciers in Antarctica are melting much faster than expected, which could have dire consequences for sea level rise. Even if humans stopped emitting greenhouse gases on an industrial scale tomorrow, Victoria University of Wellington Antarctic Research Center climate scientist Nick Golledge told Earther, “The scary thing is it keeps melting. We’ve basically set in motion a series of changes which are gonna carry on playing out over the next few centuries at least, maybe thousands of years.”
Sigurðsson told the BBC he has kept an inventory of Icelandic glaciers since 2000, finding that by 2017, 56 of the smaller ones had disappeared.
“150 years ago no Icelander would have bothered the least to see all the glaciers disappear,” Sigurðsson told the news network, referring to the glaciers’ advancement over farmlands and flooding from meltwater. “But since then, while the glaciers were retreating, they are looked at as a beautiful thing, which they definitely are… The oldest Icelandic glaciers contain the entire history of the Icelandic nation. We need to retrieve that history before they disappear.”
“We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told the audience at the ceremony, according to Deutsche Welle. “We have no time to lose.”
The world already has enough fossil fuel plants and high-emitting industrial facilities, buildings, and cars to drive average global warming above a 1.5°C threshold, according to an article earlier this month in the journal Nature.
“1.5°C carbon budgets allow for no new emitting infrastructure and require substantial changes to the lifetime or operation of already existing energy infrastructure,” write a team of researchers led by Dan Tong of the University of California Irvine.
The study concludes that existing fossil infrastructure “merely needs to continue operating over the course of its expected lifetime, and the world will emit over 650 billion tons of carbon dioxide, more than enough to dash chances of limiting the Earth’s warming to a rise of 1.5°C (or 2.7°F). That’s a level of warming that has become increasingly accepted as a scientific line-in-the-sand,” the Washington Post reports.
“And it gets worse: Proposals and plans are currently afoot for additional coal plants and other infrastructure that would add another nearly 200 billion tons of emissions to that total. Some of these are now actually under construction. In other words, human societies would need not only to cancel all such pending projects but also timeout existing projects early, in order to bring emissions down adequately.”
The Post points to the 41 gigatons of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere each year, 36 of them from fossil fuel burning and cement production, and compares those totals to the 420- to 580-gigaton carbon budget remaining to produce a 50 to 66% chance of limiting average warming to 1.5°C.
“That amounts to between 10 and 14 years at current emissions, with one year, 2018, already used up and another, 2019, halfway gone,” writes climate specialist Chris Mooney. “What the new study is saying is that existing infrastructure translates into about 16 years of current emissions just on its own, with another roughly five years in the pipeline in the form of currently planned infrastructure.”
While other research on fossil infrastructure has presented a less dire verdict, Mooney adds, “the new study contends that it contains the latest, and most plausible, estimates. Its figures for existing fossil fuel infrastructure are for 2018.”
Study co-author Ken Caldeira of Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science was involved in a similar study a decade ago, and found that existing infrastructure equated to only 1.2°C average warming.
“A decade ago, we found, there’s not enough infrastructure, and now, over the past decade, we have built enough stuff,” he told the Post. “And a lot of that stuff that was built, was built in Asia—the rise of China, and to a lesser extent India and the other southeast Asian countries, [is] the biggest change in direction regarding amount of infrastructure.”
Part of the problem is that those new plants are “younger”, the Post notes, meaning a longer expected operating life before they’re shut down. “And the picture is actually worse than the study suggests, because the research does not include emissions caused by human-led deforestation of tropical forests and other landscapes.”
Elmar Kriegler of Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said the new article “shows the huge role that the buildup of coal-fired power plants and heavy industry in China has played over the past 15 years,” driving recent increases in global CO2 emissions and accounting for half of the future emissions associated with new infrastructure. “If this buildup of coal infrastructure is going to repeat itself in other rapidly growing economies, notably India and South East Asia, the world will stand no chance to hold warming to well below 2.0°C.”
At the same time, “whether it is already too late for limiting warming to 1.5°C, as the authors claim in their headline, is too early to say,” Kriegler continued. “As the article points out, this will depend on whether the world can prematurely retire some of the heavy polluting infrastructure that has been put in place.”
The Post notes that some of those early retirements are already taking place, as solar and wind undercut coal and other forms of fossil fuel generation on price. The article also holds out hope for carbon capture technology to remove CO2 from existing fossil infrastructure.
“To me, the optimistic take on it is that most of the emissions associated with the higher warming scenarios come from infrastructure that’s yet to be built,” Caldeira said. “So avoiding those outcomes is still within our control, and it’s largely a political and social decision.”
But he cautioned: “I’m just hoping that nobody will be writing a decade in the future, ‘Oh, we built enough infrastructure to go through 2.0°C, but we can still avoid 2.5.’