The last fully intact ice shelf in the Canadian Arctic has collapsed, losing more than 40 per cent of its area in just two days at the end of July, researchers said on Thursday.
This news comes as the Arctic Ocean is poised to possibly make a new record low in sea ice extent. With the way time passes for humans, it can be hard to wrap our heads around the relentlessness of the way our planet is warming right now. We’ve just hit 75 years since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and while we’ve managed to avoid any further use of nuclear weaponry in that time, it may be that what we have done will end up being as devastating as global nuclear war. It was calculated some years ago that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, caused by human emissions, has brought us to a point at which out planet is absorbing and retaining an amount of energy equivalent to four times that created by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, every second. It’s spread out around the world, and it doesn’t come with radioactive fallout, but the heat is still here. 240 atomic bombs per minute. 14,400 every hour. 345,600 every day.
Earth is huge. It takes a lot of heat to make a difference, but that’s the thing about insulation – its effect is constant, and unrelenting. As long as there’s an imbalance, it will just keep trapping more heat than it allows to release. And it accumulates, second by second.
It doesn’t all stay in the atmosphere. Some gets absorbed by land masses, and gets moved around in the atmosphere as water evaporates and precipitates. A vast majority of it has been going into the oceans:
“If you want to see where global warming is happening, look in our oceans,” said Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper. “Ocean heating is a very important indicator of climate change, and we have robust evidence that it is warming more rapidly than we thought.”
Ocean heating is critical marker of climate change because an estimated 93 percent of the excess solar energy trapped by greenhouse gases accumulates in the world’s oceans. And, unlike surface temperatures, ocean temperatures are not affected by year-to-year variations caused by climate events like El Nino or volcanic eruptions.
And a chunk of it has been going into ice. Some of that has been sea ice, and probably counts as ocean warming, but some has been going into the massive ice deposits around the world. There, again, it’s a matter of accumulation. Glaciers, ice shelves, and ice sheets all exist in a degree of balance. They all lose mass every year, and they all gain mass back every year as the seasons change. The rise in temperature has shifted that balance. Because warmer air holds more water, there are some areas here glaciers are getting more snow than historically, because there’s more water in the air to snow down upon them, but on a global scale, they’re losing mass far faster than they’re regaining it each year.
This means a few things for us. The first is that this rend will accelerate as the temperature rises, and it will also make the temperature rise faster. As the ice recedes, more land and water are exposed, which can absorb more heat than ice, causing faster melting, causing faster warming, and so on.
This also means that melting land ice is going to become an increasingly big part of global sea level rise. A big chunk of what we’ve seen so far has been from thermal expansion of water as the oceans have warmed, and that will continue, but the faster land ice melts, the more of it will pour into the oceans.
It’s difficult to predict exactly how fast the seas will rise. The early damage is already occurring, with storm surges reaching farther inland and regular high tide flooding in cities that didn’t have that problem before. Action taken to slow the warming could slow sea level rise. Sudden collapses of ice shelves could speed it up. What’s not difficult to predict is that they will rise, and keep rising for the rest of our lives. There’s too much heat already in the system for anything else to happen, based on our current understanding of physics. As with so many of the other dangers of climate change, we know what’s coming, and we know a myriad of ways to prepare for it, so that we can ride out the storm, rather than being swamped by it.
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