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“Dramatic Change” Is One Way To Put It

A decade ago, when people spoke in hushed tones about the potential climate disaster, one scary harbinger was the break-up of the Thwaites Glacier. They used to call it “the doomsday glacier.”

The simple version of the story is that the glacier is a sort of natural plug that keeps warmer water from being able to get under this huge basin of ice and water, and warm it and eventually melt it. Moving water will greatly increase the melt-rate and, the boffins used to say the whole thing could break up and melt faster still, raising global sea levels an unfortunate amount.

See what I did there? An “unfortunate” amount – I’m down-playing the magnitude of the impending disaster, just like our friends in the media do. Why? Because, like them, I have no idea how big a disaster it is when you add a melting chunk of ice the size of Great Britain to the oceans. It’s going to be a disastrous disaster. But, as usual, it will be one that most of us won’t live through.

However, it used to be thought that release and breakup of Thwaites might be 100 years in the future, after/when/if it comes unmoored from a spit of rock that’s holding it in place. The new news is that it’s going to crumble, anyway and it’s unmoored and sort of flexing around the spit of rock that’s going to help break it apart. Not “in the next 100 years” but “in the next couple of years.” This next decade, at most.

This marks a very concerning trend. I notice that ten years or more, ago, the boffins were saying this or that or the other thing were harbingers of doom, but we’re blowing past those harbingers like they’re the flickering paint-lines on a highway and we have the gas pedal (of our great big gas-powered 12cyl Lamborghini, naturally) to the metal. They kept saying things like “if the Amazon becomes a net greenhouse gas emitter, we are fucked” and “If the Thwaites begins to have warm water under it, we are fucked” then “if the Thwaites, which has warm water under it, begins to move, we are fucked” and now “If the Thwaites shatters like a broken window, we are fucked.” I see the trend, and it’s flickering white lines so blurred they no longer register.

BBC has a bit about the research that’s going on, and, yeah surprise surprise the Thwaites is going to collapse. [BBC] As The Cure song goes, “there is no ‘if’ just ‘when’.” These outcomes are now inevitable given the current situation, let alone the governments, like the US, which continue to plan to ramp up emissions only at a reduced rate that means that sometime around 2050 they’ll be emitting a whole lot more and try to “stabilize” there.

The only good news I take from the story is that Boaty McBoatface is on the job:

After the embarrassing trollgasm surrounding the “vote for a name for our research vessel” they used the winning name Boaty McBoatface for the extremely expensive and very cool long-range nautical drone that is being used to map how badly the Thwaites is fucked. So, that’s nice. The news is not all doom and gloom.

One thing that keeps me up at night is the nagging fear that some republican buttplug is going to smugly announce that the breakup of the glacier will just help cool the planetary surface more. And, it will, briefly, but not enough. The boffins are saying the Thwaites alone is worth about 2 feet of eventual sea-level rise. That will take a while to materialize and there’s a good change (in my opinion) there won’t be a human civilization around to experience it.

You can amuse yourself with NOAA’s “global sea level rise calculator” and see what your area will look like with 2 additional feet of water. [noaa] That’s US-only, so I can’t measure how fucked England and Europe are going to be. But it’s a safe prediction to say, “fucked.”


The good news is that “the south will rise again” is not going to happen. It’s going to sink back into a miasmic swamp. So will Washington, DC. New York and Boston will be gone. Florida will be a nub. New Orleans will be gone. Or maybe not “gone” – perhaps they will still be home to a resilient population of scrappers who enjoy riding out storm-surges and hurricanes. I guess there will be opportunity for wave-generation power. Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles will be gone.

Ah, this is a global map: [climatecentral] I have to admit I found it a bit sad that the US climate agency’s map was a US-centric view of a global problem. That’s kind of representative of the whole situation, isn’t it?

Southern Vietnam and Malaysia are gone. And, since Amitav Ghosh drew my attention to Kolkata:

I was curious about China, because that’s the place the US warhawks have been trying to position as a geopolitical threat. My impression was that China was going to have huge problems, but that appears to be wrong. China’s problem is not sea level rise its flooding as the many river systems drain across the land. When I was an undergrad I took a couple semesters of Chinese history and it was amazing to hear things like “the Yellow River flooded and around 2 million people died.” Monstrous floods and consequent death have been part of the Chinese historical landscape from the beginning of written history. I won’t encourage you to look online but China is, right now, having extreme problems with flooding – stuff that makes the US’ recent flooding in Mississippi look like kids playing in a puddle. The reason I won’t encourage you to look for articles or video about that is because the US/European-based reporting on that issue is depressingly gleeful. They aren’t quite cheering but it sounds like crocodile tears to me. Maybe I’m just overly sensitive these days.

You’d think that all these things would keep our political leaders from pursuing their own ends (i.e.: to wreck everything and take over all the governments) but it appears that humanity’s prediliction for putting the worst examples of sociopathy in positions of responsibility is going to pay off, bigly.

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son
And where have you been, my darling young one
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall
Bob Dylan, of course. If Dylan were writing for the BBC the song would have been “Dramatic Change Is On The Way”
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  1. Dunc says

    I think you’re misreading this. It’s not the entire Thwaites glacier that’s at risk of breakup in the next decade, it’s part of one ice shelf on the eastern side of the leading edge of the glacier. That’s still very serious, as it will significantly increase the rate at which the rest of the glacier moves, but it’s absolutely not what you appear to be talking about here. The Thwaites glacier is floating, and is not going to break up in the next decade.

  2. says

    @Dunc – I read the referenced BBC article as saying its worse than that.

    “Floating” versus “hung up on an underwater mountain with big regions floating and preparing to crumble off” is fine semantic bread-slicing.

  3. Dunc says

    And I think you’re misreading it.

    This article is fairly clear:

    An alarming crackup has begun at the foot of Antarctica’s vulnerable Thwaites Glacier, whose meltwater is already responsible for about 4% of global sea level rise. An ice sheet the size of Florida, Thwaites ends its slide into the ocean as a floating ledge of ice 45 kilometers wide. But now, this ice shelf, riven by newly detected fissures on its surface and underside, is likely to break apart in the next 5 years or so, scientists reported today at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union.


    Once the ice shelf shatters, large sections of the glacier now restrained by it are likely to speed up, says Ted Scambos, a glaciologist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a leader of the Thwaites expedition. In a worst case, this part of Thwaites could triple in speed, increasing the glacier’s contribution to global sea level in the short term to 5%, Pettit says.


    A collapse of the entire glacier, which some researchers think is only centuries away, would raise global sea level by 65 centimeters.

    It’s important to grasp the technical difference between an ice shelf (floating) and a glacier (not floating).

  4. klatu says

    […]some republican buttplug is going to smugly announce that the breakup of the glacier[…]

    Now, now! I find this comparison both vulgar and inappropriate.

    First of all: A Republican–unlike a buttplug–does not know how to please a woman. Nor does he care!
    Second of all: A buttplug performs a noble duty: To relieve the world of otherwise monkey-like aggression (bananas equal capital).
    Third of all: Buttplugs are fun. They don’t judge or condemn. Don’t shit on them (If you can).

    It is thus my theory that the average buttplug is nobler still than the average republican.

  5. says

    It is thus my theory that the average buttplug is nobler still than the average republican.

    I am convinced. You may be Socrates reincarnated.

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