It’s not over till it’s over: Antarctic ice edition

As the planet’s warming becomes harder to ignore, despair is going to be a growing challenge in the propaganda war. The dire warning of ecological collapse, deadlier weather, rising seas, and famine are all valid; humanity faces the greatest danger in history, and the exact timing of how that will play out is unknown.

It is terrifying, depressing, and will likely become more so.

At the same time the future, while not a total mystery, is an unknown. We do not know all the effects a given course of action may have. A lot of attention is rightly given to amplifying feedback loops (processes that both speed the warming and also maintain or increase themselves), but there are also suppressing feedbacks that can slow or reverse the warming.

For example, it’s possible that a well-designed effort to “green” an area of desert could take on a momentum of it’s own, and simultaneously pull CO2 out of the air, while improving the conditions for further plant growth. Turning the considerable power power of our technology to projects like that could prove very effective at improving life around the globe, but it’s very hard to know the results before we try.

Another example is ice. The melting of the Arctic Ocean has both accelerated global warming through albedo loss (dimming), and made weather in the northern hemisphere more chaotic and dangerous. There have been proposals to slow or reverse that trend by increasing the reflectivity of existing ice, or by adding artificial icebergs to replace the ice that has melted. Obviously there’s a lot of debate about safety and effectiveness.

Antarctica had, until recently, gotten less attention. While albedo is a concern there, the bigger worry is how the degradation of sea ice will affect the terrestrial ice cap on top of the continent. Melt enough, or raise sea levels enough, and you could see a dramatic increase in ice flowing from land to sea, accelerating sea level rise. The good news is that, in the opinion of those people studying this, we haven’t reached that point yet, and with hard work, we could delay that process:

As Severinghaus says, if 12 feet of sea level rise happens over a few thousand years, it’s far easier to deal with than if it happens over a century or two. I personally think it’s too late, due to the aforementioned positive/amplifying feedback loops, to prevent at least a couple centuries of warming, but there are many things we can do to slow it. As scary as it may be to contemplate large parts of the planet becoming too hot for human habitation, the real threat to our global ecosystem is the speed of the warming. Life evolves, and will inevitably do so for as long as it exists. The slower the change, the more likely species will adapt, ecosystems and their services will remain, and our ability will grow to reshape our society into something that can last.

Because we are causing this crisis, we know that we have the capacity to affect its progress, and that means that, as long as we remain able to act collectively, we have real hope for a better world.

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