The Collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Now Seems Inevitable.

I struggled a bit in thinking about what to post today. I’ve been working on a Gaza post for a little while now, but it keeps not feeling done, and then new things keep happening. I hope I’ll have it out very soon, but that’ll depend a bit on how well I can wrangle my brain this week. Then I was thinking about a post that can be summarized by paraphrasing Forrest Gump: “Cops are like a box of chocolates. They’ll kill your dog.” I may still write that one, but that felt a bit too grim, and hit a little too close to home. I have guests in town, and I didn’t want  to be putting myself in a bad mood while playing host. I considered a couple other topics, but eventually I turned to my standby, climate science headlines, and boy do they disappoint! Specifically, I always hope for good news, and am very often disappointed, so I’ve got bad news today! It’s exciting!

As you are all no doubt aware, this little planet of ours currently has two ice caps – one on top of the island of Greenland, and one on top of the continent of Antarctica. These are such massive sheets of ice that they generate a gravitational pull on the ocean surrounding their respective landmasses, pulling the water toward them in the same way that mountains do. I know it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of ice in those ice sheets, but it bears repeating, because those ice sheets are melting, and the hotter this planet gets, the faster they melt. I think it would be helpful, for today’s discussion, to think of the ice sheets that make up those ice caps as big lakes, and glaciers as the rivers flowing from them.

For a while now, the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica has been dubbed “The Doomsday Glacier”, which sounds like a disaster movie so over the top and campy it would put The Day After Tomorrow to shame. It’s called that because that glacier is all that’s keeping the west Antarctic ice sheet from sliding into the ocean. There has long been a worry that the combination of rising sea levels and warming water would lift the glacier above it’s current “grounding line”- the spot on the sea floor that’s currently slowing it down. If the bottom melts enough, and the glacier floats up enough, then it loses that friction, and can just flow out into the ocean, soon followed by the ice sheet. The final result of that would be 3-4 meters of sea level rise, or roughly 10-13 feet. The sea level rise in that time frame would considerably more than that, given contributions from the rest of Antarctica, from Greenland, from mountain glaciers, and from thermal expansion as the temperature continues to rise.

And so I regret to inform you that we have yet more bad news from the Thwaites glacier:

A team of glaciologists led by researchers at the University of California, Irvine used high-resolution satellite radar data to find evidence of the intrusion of warm, high-pressure seawater many kilometers beneath the grounded ice of West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier.

In a study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the UC Irvine-led team said that widespread contact between ocean water and the glacier – a process that is replicated throughout Antarctica and in Greenland – causes “vigorous melting” and may require a reassessment of global sea level rise projections.

The glaciologists relied on data gathered from March to June of 2023 by Finland’s ICEYE commercial satellite mission. The ICEYE satellites form a “constellation” in polar orbit around the planet, using InSAR – interferometer synthetic aperture radar – to persistently monitor changes on the Earth’s surface. Many passes by a spacecraft over a small, defined area render smooth data results. In the case of this study, it showed the rise, fall and bending of Thwaites Glacier.

“These ICEYE data provided a long-time series of daily observations closely conforming to tidal cycles,” said lead author Eric Rignot, UC Irvine professor of Earth system science. “In the past, we had some sporadically available data, and with just those few observations it was hard to figure out what was happening. When we have a continuous time series and compare that with the tidal cycle, we see the seawater coming in at high tide and receding and sometimes going farther up underneath the glacier and getting trapped. Thanks to ICEYE, we’re beginning to witness this tidal dynamic for the first time.”

ICEYE Director of Analytics Michael Wollersheim, co-author, said, “Until now, some of the most dynamic processes in nature have been impossible to observe with sufficient detail or frequency to allow us to understand and model them. Observing these processes from space and using radar satellite images, which provide centimeter-level precision InSAR measurements at daily frequency, marks a significant leap forward.”

Rignot said the project helped him and his colleagues develop a better understanding of the behavior of seawater on undersides of Thwaites Glacier. He said that seawater coming in at the base of the ice sheet, combined with freshwater generated by geothermal flux and friction, builds up and “has to flow somewhere.” Water is distributed through natural conduits or collects in cavities, creating enough pressure to elevate the ice sheet.

“There are places where the water is almost at the pressure of the overlying ice, so just a little more pressure is needed to push up the ice,” Rignot said. “The water is then squeezed enough to jack up a column of more than half a mile of ice.”

Just to be clear, half a mile is just under the height of the tallest building in the world, we’re talking a solid sheet of ice, not a hollow building. I know the scale is probably familiar to everyone reading this blog, but I still find it a bit mind-boggling how much weight is being lifted by this slowly intruding water. Maybe it’s just that this is a small enough “big” part of what’s happening to the planet as a whole that I can just about wrap my brain around it. Unfortunately, this is exactly what scientists have long been fearing, because that layer of water isn’t just lifting the ice, it’s acting as lubrication, letting it slide faster, and worse, it’s speeding the melting from the underside:

And it’s not just any seawater. For decades, Rignot and his colleagues have been gathering evidence of the impact of climate change on ocean currents, which push warmer seawater to the shores of Antarctica and other polar ice regions. Circumpolar deep water is salty and has a lower freezing point. While freshwater freezes at zero degrees Celsius, saltwater freezes at minus two degrees, and that small difference is enough to contribute to the “vigorous melting” of basal ice as found in the study.

Climate scientists have been warning the world about the dangers of climate change since at least the 1950s, and all along the way, their projections have proven to be either accurate, or too optimistic. They’ve been ignored and dismissed by the rich and powerful, and contrary to the fantasies of climate science deniers, the scientists are not actually getting the support they need.

Co-author Christine Dow, professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, said, “Thwaites is the most unstable place in the Antarctic and contains the equivalent of 60 centimeters of sea level rise. The worry is that we are underestimating the speed that the glacier is changing, which would be devastating for coastal communities around the world.”

Rignot said that he hopes and expects the results of this project to spur further research on the conditions beneath Antarctic glaciers, exhibitions involving autonomous robots and more satellite observations.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm from the scientific community to go to these remote, polar regions to gather data and build our understanding of what’s happening, but the funding is lagging,” he said. “We operate at the same budget in 2024 in real dollars that we were in the 1990s. We need to grow the community of glaciologists and physical oceanographers to address these observation issues sooner rather than later, but right now we’re still climbing Mount Everest in tennis shoes.”

They’ll keep on climbing in those tennis shoes, but It feels like it would be a good idea to get them proper funding. The whole world is changing, and for all I called this a “little planet”, that’s a lot of area to cover, in studying how global warming is changing things. It’s nice to have a warning about what looks to be the unavoidable collapse of the west Antarctic ice sheet, but the less we fund climate science, the more likely are to get a nasty surprise.

The good news is that this process will not happen all at once. We do still have time to slow the warming, and to prepare for the rising sea. Even with the rapid acceleration, it will take many, many years for the ice sheet to flow into the ocean. This is not a meltwater pulse. That said, it will result in more rapid sea level rise throughout this century. As always, the degree to which this is a disaster will depend on what we do, as a species, to prepare for it, and to mitigate change. We’ve been warned with time to respond. The only question is whether we will heed that warning.

How Not To Do Renewable Energy: A Case for Systemic Change

I am in favor of using renewable energy as one way to replace fossil fuels as a  power source. I don’t write about that on this blog as much as I used to, because I came to realize that simply writing about solutions is insufficient. Between nuclear energy, renewable energy, and an abundance of ways to decrease energy consumption, we’ve had the tools to solve the climate crisis for decades. The problem is not a lack of solutions, or even a lack of popular desire for change. The problem is that the US government serves neither the will, nor the interests of the people.  It serves the interests of capitalists – those who own for a living, rather than selling their labor. That makes sense, right? In a capitalist society, the government serves capitalists. There are exceptions to that, of course, but the vast majority of those rights and guarantees came as grudging concessions in the face of mass uprisings and disaster. Further, once rights are won, like a fair wage or the right to abortion (one of the times we arguably gained rights without a mass movement), they are under constant attack, and can be lost again.

I’ve talked before about how climate change is not the only environmental crisis facing us, though it’s unquestionably the biggest. Chemical pollution, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are also taking an increasing toll on the ecosystems that make our world habitable, and all of those problems are amplified by the rising temperature. It’s possible that, as climate chaos causes crop failures and escalating disasters, we’ll see the capitalists looking to cash in on the energy transition win out over fossil fuels and the would-be post-apocalyptic warlords. What that would not do is stop the chemical pollution and habitat destruction, or end the brutal exploitation and disregard for human life that still fuels the engines of capitalism. This was on my mind today, because I was recently reminded of a good example of why I don’t think we can leave it all to the current system.

One of the big problems with solar energy is at it requires a lot of surface area, and there’s not really any way to get around that. In my opinion, the way we ought to be rolling out photovoltaic power is by putting solar panels on roofs, and over things like parking lots, wherever we can. There is a lot of existing surface area that’s exposed to the sun, and that could be used to generate electricity or heat water, without claiming more land. Without doing something like destroying a delicate desert ecosystem to put up a solar farm. From May of last year:

Over the last few years, this swathe of desert has been steadily carpeted with one of the world’s largest concentrations of solar power plants, forming a sprawling photovoltaic sea. On the ground, the scale is almost incomprehensible. The Riverside East Solar Energy Zone – the ground zero of California’s solar energy boom – stretches for 150,000 acres, making it 10 times the size of Manhattan.


“When people look across the desert, they just see scrubby little plants that look dead half the time,” says Robin Kobaly, a botanist who worked at the BLM for over 20 years as a wildlife biologist before founding the Summertree Institute, an environmental education non-profit. “But they are missing 90% of the story – which is underground.”

Her book, The Desert Underground, features illustrated cross-sections that reveal the hidden universe of roots extended up to 150ft below the surface, supported by branching networks of fungal mycelium. “This is how we need to look at the desert,” she says, turning a diagram from her book upside-down. “It’s an underground forest – just as majestic and important as a giant redwood forest, but we can’t see it.”

The reason this root network is so valuable, she argues, because it operates as an enormous “carbon sink” where plants breathe in carbon dioxide at the surface and out underground, forming layers of sedimentary rock known as caliche. “If left undisturbed, the carbon can remain stored for thousands of years,’” she says.

Desert plants are some of the oldest carbon-capturers around: Mojave yuccas can be up to 2,500 years old, while the humble creosote bush can live for over 10,000 years. These plants also sequester carbon in the form of glomalin, a protein secreted around the fungal threads connected to the plants’ roots, thought to store a third of the world’s soil carbon. “By digging these plants up,” says Kobaly, “we are removing the most efficient carbon sequestration units on the planet – and releasing millennia of stored carbon back into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the solar panels we are replacing them with have a lifespan of around 25 years.”

See, when a corporation sets up solar panels, under our current system, they’re not doing so for the benefit of the environment. They’re doing it for money, because that’s how things work in this system. That means that they have the exact same incentives as every other corporation that destroys habitat in the name of profits and “progress”. I want more solar energy, but if we’re doing it like this, because it’s more profitable than tackling the more complex process of using existing spaces like rooftops and parking lots, then we’re better off spending that money on nuclear power.

How the transition is done will make a big difference when it comes to the resilience of the planet’s ecosystems, and capitalism does not value things like biodiversity, despite all the effort that’s gone into framing its value in dollars. We can see this in the destruction discussed above, or with the ill-considered placement of wind turbines leading to landslides in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And so, “climate action” must encompass systemic change. The political and economic structures that govern our lives must be replaced, or we will be forever stuck dealing with half-measures and habitat destruction, on top of the burdens imposed by our unstable climate.

Driven to Distraction by Howling Death Machines

There are valid concerns about renewable energy sources, particularly as they are being implemented today. Corporations and governments have been pursuing their lackluster energy transition with the same destructive recklessness as they pursue fossil fuels, threatening or destroying habitats around the world to put up turbines or solar farms, rather than using existing spaces like parking lots and rooftops, or actually taking the time to consider environmental impacts. Wind turbines also do kill birds and bats, albeit fewer than are killed by fossil fuels, and the wind industry seems to have no interest in voluntarily adopting different turbine designs to avoid that. Why would they? They’re capitalist organizations, just like all the rest.

None of this, however, negates the need for renewable and nuclear energy to replace fossil fuels, and so in addition to considering those valid concerns, I’ve also learned about a great many concerns that have no validity whatsoever, and perhaps the pinnacle of those has been the so-called “Wind Turbine Syndrome“. In a nutshell, organizations in the employ of the fossil fuel industry spread the false notion that the mere presence of a wind turbine was destructive to the health of local communities. The primary lie was that the turbines generated “infrasound” that acted like some kind of sonic weapon to cause all sorts of health problems. This has been debunked many times over, but it turns out that by spreading this panic among targeted populations, they created a “nocebo effect”, which generated psychosomatic symptoms. People literally worried themselves sick over the sound of wind turbines.

I thought of this today, because as I was pondering topics for this post, I came across an interesting bit of research about an actual public health problem caused by sound. What’s more, if we were to eliminate the source of this problem, it would actually help the fight against global warming!

The bad news is that doing so means reigning in the military-industrial complex that has become one of the biggest businesses in the United States, which is no mean feat. The US armed forces, in addition to being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world, are a noisy bunch, and have little regard for the people living around them. Normally when we’re talking about the harm done by the Pentagon, we’re talking about chemical pollution, and the devastating human, social, and political impacts of the United States’ constant warmongering. This may not be as big of a problem as those two, but noise pollution is also a big problem, and it’s not just an annoyance. You may have heard of the US Navy’s sonar messing with whales, and now it turns out that the US Navy’s “growler” jet is so loud that it’s actually harming the health of people as it flies over.

Bob Wilbur thought he’d found a retirement home that would be a place of peace. Nestled against Admiralty Bay on the western edge of Whidbey Island, the three-story house is surrounded by trees and shoreline. It offers the kind of quiet that only an island can provide. Except when the Growlers fly. 

As often as four days a week, Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft based at the nearby Naval Air Station Whidbey Island fly loops overhead as pilots practice touch-and-go landings. The noise is immense, around the level of a loud rock concert. “It interrupts your day,” Wilbur said. “You’re unable to have a pleasant evening at home. You can’t communicate. You constantly try to organize your day around being gone when the jets are flying.” 

New research from the University of Washington shows that the noise isn’t just disruptive — it presents a substantial risk to public health. Published May 9 in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, an analysis of the Navy’s own acoustic monitoring data found that more than 74,000 people are exposed to noise levels associated with adverse health effects 

“Military aircraft noise is substantially more intense and disturbing than commercial jet noise,” said lead author Giordano Jacuzzi, a graduate student in the UW College of the Environment. “Noise exposure has many downstream effects beyond just annoyance and stress — high levels of sleep disturbance, hearing impairment, increased risk of cardiovascular disease — these have real impacts on human health and quality of life. We also found that several schools in the area are exposed to levels that have been shown to put children at risk of delayed learning.”

Maybe this sort of thing doesn’t capture the imagination of the world’s conspiracy theorists the way an undetectable “infrasound” does, but the main way sound can harm us is by being too loud. I think it’s often easy for us to dismiss annoyances. We learn to live with minor discomforts, because that’s just what’s required to get through life. As we age, we acquire new and often worse discomforts, and we learn to cope with those too, but this stuff wears on us. The health impacts of stress, and sleeplessness are well known, and there are some conditions to which humans cannot adapt. We can try, and we can live with them for a time, but they wear us down as surely as exposure to a chronic poison.

In total, an estimated 74,316 people were exposed to average noise levels that posed a risk of annoyance, 41,089 of whom were exposed to nighttime noise levels associated with adverse effects on sleep. Another 8,059 people — most of whom lived within fairly close proximity to aircraft landing strips – were exposed to noise levels that can pose a risk of hearing impairment over time. 

“Our bodies produce a lot of stress hormone response to noise in general, it doesn’t matter what kind of noise it is. But particularly if it’s this repeated acute noise, you might expect that stress hormone response to be exacerbated,” said co-author Edmund Seto, a UW professor of environmental and occupational health sciences. “What was really interesting was that we’re reaching noise exposure levels that are actually harmful for hearing. Usually I only think of hearing in the context of working in factories or other really, really loud occupational settings. But here, we’re reaching those levels for the community.  

Taken as a whole, the potential harms can be quite serious, Seto said. “Imagine people trying to sleep, or children in school trying to understand their teachers and you’ve got these jets flying.” 

Every monitoring station on Whidbey Island measured noise events in excess of 100 decibels when jets were flying. In some instances, noise levels were “off the charts” — exceeding the limits of models used to predict the health effects of noise exposure around the world.  

“We found it striking that Growler noise exceeds the scientific community’s current understanding of the potential health outcomes,” said co-author Julian Olden, a UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences. “For this reason, our estimates of health impacts are conservative.” 

As I said before, this is very far down on the list of reasons why the US imperial armed forces need to be dismantled for the good of humanity (not JUST the US, to be clear – it’s just the worst offender). The endless war, the genocides the US keeps supporting, of which the ongoing massacre of the Palestinian people is just one, the rampant pollution of land, sea, and air; a little noise seems like nothing next to all of that. Which is why I decided to write this post. When the world is filled with vicious savagery, hatred, and destruction, it’s easy to overlook those problems that don’t cause human bodies to be torn apart or filled with cancer, but the suffering of those subjected to the maddening noise of constant military fly-overs also merits our concern.

We live in a vast and tangled web of interconnected systems, many of which are extremely harmful for the vast majority of humanity. Stafford Beer popularized the notion that the purpose of a system is what it does, and what the Pentagon does, is destroy lives in so many ways that we may never quantify all of them. It destabilizes our world in pretty much every way one could imagine, all to provide the illusion of stability that comes from the same group of people being in charge, decade after decade. Taking on the US military, even at the funding end rather than the killing end, is one of the most daunting tasks there is, but it has also always been a part of the fight for a stable climate. It remains a tall order, but as Ursula Le Guin once said:

We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Two Dead Whistleblowers: History’s Lessons on Capitalist Violence

I’ve been listening to arguments in favor of capitalism for at least a couple decades now, since long before I started wanting a different system. Most often, people will point to the “failures” of 20th-century efforts to create something else, but if you take the time to drill down past the examples, and the factors that led to those failures, the conversation often ends up in some form of naturalization. Capitalism is the best we can hope for, because it’s the natural state of things, and/or because human nature is inherently selfish, and so we should have a system that acknowledges and uses that fact.

Personally, I think if you believe that about humans, then capitalism makes even less sense than left-wing systems. History has been pretty clear about what happens when you give the most wealth and power to those most obsessed with increasing their personal wealth and power. Those people are pretty much always going to use what they have to change the system to give themselves even more wealth and power, no matter the cost to the rest of us. After all, that’s what they’ve been doing for their whole lives, and they’re celebrated for it.

This also calls into question another common argument I see, that our society has “advanced”, and learned from past mistakes, so the militancy of labor movements past is no longer necessary or helpful. That opinion seems to be in decline, as the abuses of the owning class become more blatant, but I still run into it from time to time. If human nature is unchanging, then surely modern capitalists would be just as willing to use violence as the robber barons of old, right?

Capitalist corporations, and the people they serve, have always demonstrated indifference to human life, and intense disdain for human happiness. This can be seen in their constant fight to get more hours from their workers, for less pay, their hatred of safety and environmental regulations, and their apparent scorn for the wellbeing of their customers. This is true whether it’s Johnson and Johnson knowingly selling asbestos to be used on babies, or Boeing knowingly selling unsafe airplanes. Why, then, would we expect them to suddenly value the lives of their workers, when those workers are standing in their way?

Personally, I don’t buy that narrative about human nature. Humans are complex, and shaped by the world around us, including those parts of the world that we ourselves create. What I do believe is that our system is designed to empower and reward the same kind of thinking and behavior as it did back when bosses were hiring thugs to fire machine guns at striking workers. Similar incentives tend to yield similar results.

Readers of this blog probably saw the headlines when John Barnett, a whistleblower who was testifying in a case against Boeing, was found dead, killed by a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound back in March. Suicide is a complicated phenomenon, and sometimes it can take those left behind by surprise. That said, those who knew the man seem convinced that he did not take his own life, including a claim that he had explicitly stated that any declaration of his suicide should not be believed.  We may never know for certain, but it sure was suspicious.

And then, just a couple days ago, a second whistleblower died, this time from a sudden respiratory illness, at age 45. His name was Joshua Dean.

It was a stunning turn of events for Dean and his family. Green says he was very healthy — someone who went to the gym, ran nearly every day and was very careful about his diet.

“This was his first time ever in a hospital,” she said. “He didn’t even have a doctor because he never was sick.”

But within days, Dean’s kidneys gave out and he was relying on an ECMO life support machine to do the work of his heart and lungs. The night before Dean died, Green said, the medical staff in Oklahoma did a bronchoscopy on his lungs.

“The doctor said he’d never seen anything like it before in his life. His lungs were just totally … gummed up, and like a mesh over them.”

Green says she has asked for an autopsy to determine exactly what killed her son. Results will likely take months, she said.

“We’re not sure what he died of,” she said. “We know that he had a bunch of viruses. But you know, we don’t know if somebody did something to him, or did he just get real sick.”

Now, just as suicide is a thing that happens, so is sudden, lethal illness at 45. That said, the timing is odd, isn’t it? And as we’ve already established, the giant corporation that makes military aircraft and sells unsafe planes to increase their profits does not value human life the way you or I do, and neither do the people running that corporation.

We may never know for for certain, but it sure was suspicious.

So what’s my point here? Is it just to ensure that my suspicion is shared by my readers? Well, partly, but it’s more than that. I also think that those of us who want to build a better world would be well advised to acknowledge that we are up against people who have the means, motive, and I would say inclination to kill those who threaten their wealth and power. Depending on your perspective, Dear Reader, this may sound like I’m understating the case, or like I’m paranoid, but I absolutely believe that most capitalists would purchase the death of an opponent and not lose a wink of sleep, if they thought they could get away with it.

Therefor, I believe it is necessary for workers to cooperate, and have each others’ backs, and to build the kind of organized, collective power that cannot be stopped just by killing leaders or whistleblowers. I don’t know whether either of these men would have wanted a union security detail, for example, but it seems like something that should be available. The one bit of good news – insofar as any of this mess can be called “good” – is that the entirely coincidental and innocent deaths of John Barnett and Joshua Dean have led ten more whistleblowers to step forward. That’s the kind of solidarity that can make a movement unstoppable – cut off two heads, ten more take their place.

It seems like we’re entering an era in which, to quote Dennis the Peasant, we are seeing the violence inherent in the system. Capitalists are over-reaching, and the results of their greed are eating away at the foundations of society, leaving it as unstable as infrastructure in the United States. Whether it’s by firing organizers, brutalizing activists, or assassinating whistleblowers, those at the top will use violence to keep their place above us. Thankfully, history doesn’t just teach us about the viciousness of the powerful, it also teaches us that together, we are stronger. Individuals and leaders can be shut down or shot down, but the movement carries on.