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Columbia Glacier calves icebergs into Columbia Bay west of Valdez, AK. since 1984, the glacier has retreated 16 km.

The Columbia glacier calves icebergs near Valdez, Alaska.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES BALOG, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

Dennis Dimick

National Geographic

Published May 13, 2014

It might be useful to step back from coverage of new studies just out on the West Antarctic ice sheet collapse and look at the issue of climate change through a broader lens.

The new studies—published in Geophysical Research Letters and Science—report that ice is moving more rapidly from West Antarctica into the sea, and this speedup of melting has the potential to affect low-lying coastal regions around the world faster than scientists previously estimated.

We likely will see higher than three feet of sea rise by the end of the century, based on this new research. If you own coastal property that you plan to leave to your children, that will likely be a concern, sooner or later.

But melting ice coming off West Antarctica isn't the only source of rising seas. Continental glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet, and the East Antarctic ice sheet also have great potential as sources of meltwater to raise sea levels. If all the ice in Greenland were to melt, seas could rise about 20 feet, and if all the ice in East and West Antarctica melted, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, seas would rise about 200 feet.

This worst-case scenario is unlikely, but seas have risen and fallen in the past as ice ages have come and gone. If we plan and act, we can adapt to rising seas, but we will need to build coastal defenses like levees and barriers, restore protective wetlands, or even move away from low-lying coasts if needed. As Tim Folger wrote in National Geographic magazine last September, the Netherlands already leads in adapting to rising seas.

A map of the Antarctic ice.

With media hyperventilation around "collapse," such as as this headline "West Antarctic Ice Sheet Collapse Triggers Sea Level Warning," or this one, "Antarctic ice sheet rapidly collapsing, studies contend," one might think we should run for the hills now. As Andrew Revkin wrote in his Dot Earth blog yesterday, "collapse" carries different meanings in scientific and social settings. It's not like this ice sheet is falling down suddenly, like a building stricken by an earthquake.

To those who study these things, a melt like this, even over a thousand years, amounts to sudden change, even if it might not seem that way to people who think in terms of human generations or news headlines.

But as long as we are considering melting ice, we need to consider the cause. It's easy to trumpet headlines of imminent doom and then turn the spotlight onto the next study or storm. It's harder to keep paying attention to the reasons why these global changes are unfolding.

For instance, "Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet," as Justin Gillis wrote in the New York Times today.

And, as Darryl Fears wrote in the Washington Post, "Scientists said the rise in sea level, up to 12 feet, will take centuries to reach its peak and cannot be reversed. But they said a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions could slow the melt, while an increase could speed it slightly."

Just last week the United States released a major report on climate change and how it is affecting us through storms and heat waves, droughts, floods, disappearing snowpacks, and changing seasons. That report followed others this year from groups such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.

And then there's the granddaddy of them all, the global climate science report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, a compilation of research by thousands of scientists over many years.

The conclusions in general are that the Earth is warming and that we the people, with our carbon energy-fueled economic activities, are primarily responsible for this. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere by adding heat-trapping gases such as CO2, and as a result, the sun's heat is being trapped near the Earth and causing global temperatures to rise.

As the analysts say, this is not rocket science. And yet, a significant number of Americans, and their elected representatives, do not subscribe to the consensus findings of climate science. Columnist Michael Gerson observes in the Washington Post today that this aversion to science will come at a high price.

He writes, "The only possible answers come from science. And for non-scientists, this requires a modicum of trust in the scientific enterprise. Even adjusting for the possibility of untoward advocacy, it seems clear that higher concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have produced a modest amount of warming and are likely to produce more. This, in turn, is likely to produce higher sea levels, coastal flooding, shifting fisheries, ocean acidification, water shortages, lower crop yields and vanishing ecosystems."

This is about connections: The choices we make with energy, land use, farming, and other activities that contribute to climate change can affect what happens far away, in places like Antarctica or Greenland where ice sheets are melting.

And those melting ice sheets that cause the seas to rise can eventually affect us where we live. Maybe not today or even in what many of us would consider to be the near future but, as the ice sheet scientists reported yesterday, sooner than we might think.

Dennis Dimick is National Geographic's Executive Editor for the Environment. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, and flickr.

14 comments
E. Follett
E. Follett

This article took a bizarre turn at the end. Allow me to make sure I've understood...

1) Reports have been released in scientific journals about arctic ice melting.

2) The media and public should take a measured approach to how we process this, recognizing that even "sudden" melting, in scientific terms, could take thousands of years.

3) With thoughtful planning, we'll survive, as our ancestors did in the past.

4) Flat-earthers reject science and will be the death of us all.

About sum it up?

Tom Martin
Tom Martin

Marcel Nicolaus and Stefan Hendricks from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven found that Antarctic ice reached record levels in 2013 at 19.7 million square km, the most Antarctic ice ever recorded since satellites began tracking it.  That was more than a 4% increase in Antarctic ice over 2012 levels.  I would put far more trust in scientific data about what's happening now over computer model predictions of the future, especially when those computer models have failed to predict current climate conditions. 

Donald DiNaro
Donald DiNaro

            Perhaps most people have forgotten the MEDIA is  controlled group by powerful corporations, world wide  and never reports about the Thousand’s  of airplane flights/day that are dumping vast amounts of Co,CO2, NO, and other pollutants at 30,000 feet! This is a very bad practice for planet Earth and Global warming begins when Sunlight first strikes the Earths Upper atmosphere! The result is pressure waves changing the Jet-Stream. Global warming then shifts water currents and large air masses through the Evpo-Transportation system world wide. So here we sit having giant glaciers melt away at the earths bottom land mass; Antarctica. The earth is a gyroscope balanced by this polar ice to yield a 23.5 degree tilt axis. Melt away that mass of ice and the earth will wobble and re-balance to a newer tilt axis. The earth is an Oblate spheroid, heavier and wider at the equator. A planetoid rotating at 1,000/mph has no choose but to re-balance, with catastrophic effects world wide.

                      Fossil fuel burning MUST end and soon for the good of mankind. Giant airships of Helium with solar cells for power can replace the jet engine’s with electric engines. Solar arrays & more nuclear power plants, hydro-electric dams need to be built world wide, in vast numbers. All fossil fuel usage; coal, wood, dung, peat, oil, natural gas MUST be stopped immediately. Life will not go on for everyone on this planet if the gyroscope re-balances itself at a 90 degree tilt! Wake up world, clock is ticking, time is running out! 

Neil Sinclair
Neil Sinclair

why are there comments here that resort to name-calling and insults?  What is presented is research showing the eventual collapse of glaciers in Antarctica.  If any of this is controversial it needs to be evaluated based on the research methods and conclusions, which are absent from these spurious comments. Please!

Justin Smith
Justin Smith

A couple of times a week I read another doomsday alarm from NG. But every single one of them is filled to the brim with might, may, possibly, could, probably or any number of other words to the effect. 


Far too many people pray to the altar of Science thinking it is correct 100% of the time every time. The masses of people out there that hang on every word from scientists taking it to be gospel and simply ignore all of the one simple fact. No matter how much you study or know when you "predict" what will happen tomorrow, it is only a guess.


When your guessing my guess is as good as yours! 

Gerard Van der Leun
Gerard Van der Leun

What's happening?

Nothing,

What can you do about it.

Nothing.


Grow

Up

Children

Doug Hornby
Doug Hornby

Where in the study did they mention rising sea levels?

They didn't. You ASSUMED it.

Darn but I dislike stupid.

Steven Salo
Steven Salo

Everything goes through cycles.  My concern now is with the high percentage of co2 in the atmosphere that has been building since we started burning large amounts of coal and oil.  And I suppose paving and concrete replacing co2 fixing plant life hasn't helped.


The bottom line for me is that while I believe in science, I'm generally a skeptic of any single study and who is paying for it.  In the climate change issue, I've seen more flawed data and conclusions than anywhere else.  The only thing that's really hard to argue against is the co2 level rising.  It can be argued why it's rising and that it's not related to us burning coal and oil.  It's still rising.  And as it goes up, it's not in dispute that it will lead to our atmosphere trapping more heat.


I don't think we can accurately predict climate due to variables, both local as in weather trends locally and larger scale, as in a massive volcanic eruption.  But I am seriously concerned that a lot of ice is melting and our reaction seems to be pretty unresponsive.

I think it's time to do the less painful things (like even more fuel efficient vehicles) and start taking serious looks at the really big fixes we might need to attempt in the future.  I suspect that coal fired power plants will not be cheap or easy to replace and nuclear power scares me.  Hydro is very limited in size.  Wind and solar may have some future, but I understand that it's expensive and has a long way to go before it can replace much of our power needs on a percentage basis.

Dennis Dimick
Dennis Dimick expert

@Emilee Follett Thank you for your comment, but the answer would be no. Your first premise is incorrect. Ice on Antarctica is not sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. They behave differently, and ice that melts while already in the sea does not significantly impact sea level, while ice melting into the sea from the land does. And as to your final conclusion, i am unable to find anything in the piece that provides a basis for that assertion.

Don Ryan
Don Ryan

@Tom Martin  Yes but they are both true and not mutually exclusive.  Warmer water is undermining the west ice sheet, and because of its particular situation in a bowl a process has begun that will lead to it breaking away from Antarctica and eventually melting into the ocean.  Record ice has been accumulating on top, particularly in the higher regions of the continent, but also all over the entire mass.  That accumulation just means more ice to melt once the shelf eventually dislodges and calves.  More contribution to sea level rise.

Jerry Boffin
Jerry Boffin

@Justin Smith  


"No matter how much you study or know when you "predict" what will happen tomorrow, it is only a guess."


Please do a search on "scientific method" to understand how ridiculous this statement is. Most of science is about predicting the future. This is what our theory of gravity, magnetism, mechanics and many others are all about.


"When your guessing my guess is as good as yours! "


Hate to burst the bubble you live in, but without some scientific basis your guess is worthless and mostly just noise!

Jerry Boffin
Jerry Boffin

@Steven Salo  

Besides increasing CO2 levels, we can measure the amount of ice we are losing with good accuracy. Unfortunately, as you mention, average temperature is very difficult to measure due to the dynamics of our weather systems. Too bad the focus is mostly on temperature.


We might have a better chance of affecting change by focusing on global politics and economics. Politically, imagine a world where Middle East oil and Russian gas are not important. Economically, consider the true cost of hydrocarbons including tax subsidies, environmental clean up, and wars to protect supply.

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