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Polar-Palooza and the Singing Glaciologist

NASA

NASA

If Greenland melts, the seas will rise 23 feet. Greenland + Antarctica = 38 feet.

[Editor’s note: The Arctic and Antarctic may seem a long way from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but melting ice caps and warming oceans lead to rising sea levels and fiercer hurricanes. ’Nuff said?]

While everyone else is blogging about the stimulus plan (keep it up) we want to tell you about the “Polar-Palooza” talk we heard this weekend at the New York Times building, hosted by Andrew Revkin [1], environment reporter for the Times (see his great blog Dot Earth [2] here) and author of The North Pole Was Here. Revkin moderated a discussion by four scientists studying the climate conditions and biology of the North and South poles and Greenland.

The talk’s title, “Stories from a Changing Planet” sounds innocuous—like there’s nothing to worry about? Indeed the tone was friendly, likely to encourage people to care about what is happening to the poles rather than to threaten with doom scenarios—but the subtext (like the bulk of an iceberg) was chilling. How scary? If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, the seas would rise 23 feet. If Antarctica also were to melt, seas would rise 38 feet. How would a Category 5-strength levee hold up against that?

Following the jump are some rough, miscellaneous notes of the scientists’ fascinating accounts of the North and South poles. (Those who are interested—yes, you!—should check out the New York Times’s [3] Science page [3], which is richly stocked with articles on global warming, green energy, hurricanes, and so on. Illustrations, links, graphics, and more.)

LNW_AlleyRichard Alley, a glaciologist described by Andrew Revkin as “a cross between Woody Allen and Carl Sagan,” is a professor of geosciences at Penn State and has worked extensively in Greenland and Antarctica. He is the author of The Two-Mile Time Machine [4], a prize-winning book on abrupt climate change. In his shtick [5]as a singing glaciologist with an acoustic guitar and something of a voice [6], Alley is the kind of friendly “ice geek” you’d call on if you wanted to make the study of melting polar caps appealing to young people. (The NYT panel was an adults’ version of “Polar-Palooza, [7]” a traveling show the scientists have presented to kids in 30 cities from coast to coast.) Mary Albert, chairwoman of the U.S. committee to the International Polar Year 2007–2008, talked about her recent trek in the Norwegian–American Antarctic Traverse to the South Pole. Michael Castellini, a marine scientist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, talked about the effects of warming on penguins, seals, and polar bears. Perhaps the most down-to-earth scientist of all was Orville Huntington, a native Athabascan Alaskan whose father some two generations ago was already noticing changes in the flora and fauna of the tribe’s ancestral lands: the average temperature has risen more than six degrees since then.

Andrew Revkin, who has been to the North Pole three times, says the North Pole is floating, not anchored to land, and moves about 400 yards an hour (thus the title of his book, The North Pole Was Here [8]). If you plant a flag at exact N Pole spot, by the next day the ice will have shifted. The N Pole ice is only about 6 feet thick (whereas the South Pole is some two miles thick). The sea beneath the N polar ice cap is about 14,000 feet deep. The ice over Antarctica, however, is over land; the Antarctic ice cap is about 10,000 feet thick, and contains 90% of all the ice on the earth. (Richard Alley says in the middle of Greenland the ice is 2 mi thick.)

Richard Alley says a fossil of wood has been found in Antarctica from about 30 MYA (million years ago). Earth’s age is about 4.6 billion years. If you laid out the earth’s lifetime as a football field, 100 yards long, the period of recorded human history would be no thicker than a piece of paper. The Larsen B ice shelf [9] that collapsed in 2002 (shocking scientists worldwide) had been in Antarctica for about 10,000 years. (How much of a rise in sea level was caused by that collapse? The ice shelf [10]was the size of Rhode Island.) Data on Antarctica has been systematically collected since 1957.

LNW_Antarct.LarsenB.NASAMary Albert, professor of engineering at Dartmouth
U.S., Norway conducted Norwegian-American Antarctic Traverse 2007–2009 across E Antarctica from Troll Station (Norwegian) to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. The expedition set out from Troll Station in November 2007 and moved at tractor speed for three months the distance of Boston to Miami (because huge snow tractors transporting their living quarters were their mode of transport). They reached the Pole of Inaccessibility (the farthest point from any shore of Antarctica) on January 1, 2008. There was a bust of Lenin left by USSR scientists (why not covered by snow, ice?).

Mike Castellini, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
Warming is having serious, harmful effects on Adélie penguins, seals, and polar bears.
“Arktos” = land of the polar bear
Annual sea ice minimum has been declining; albedo = (or related to) reflectivity of sunlight on ice; positive feedback loop
Rangel Island off of Siberia: polar bears picked off all the walruses

Orville Huntington of Athabascan community, Huslia, Alaska
His father started seeing climate changes about 40 years ago; temperature has risen 6.5 degrees in past 50 years; flowers blooming in fall, tricked by the warmth. Spoke often of the “spirit of the trees,” dying too early, only 200 years old: that tree breathed in CO2 that my ancestors exhaled. No caribou anymore. Athabascan tribe named after a kind of caribou that no longer come to the tribal lands (blocked by the Trans-Alaska Pipeline). Dead fish floating, found with fungus on their skins; immune systems breaking down. “One or two degrees’ change is difference between life and death for us.” Erosion, ice breaking up, loss of permafrost.

Richard Alley: In the middle of Greenland the ice is 2 miles thick. Ice core samples like studying tree rings. National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver. Some cores taken from Greenland are of ice 130,000 years old. (Some ice there is 150,000 years old.) As snow layers compress, year after year, they turn to ice; contain tiny air bubbles. You can actually examine composition of atmosphere. CO2 concentration fluctuates, shows temperature, climate correlation (as shown in An Inconvenient Truth). Some variations are due simply to orbital variations as Earth tilts, over 41,000-year cycle.
Little Ice Age in Europe, Netherlands, as shown in paintings by Brueghel. There have been some extreme, abrupt temperature changes in little more than a decade or so in the past 15,000 years. We’ve just begun to show the human-caused changes in world temperature resulting from CO2.

NASA

NASA

There are alternative ways to generate energy that do not create CO2. Energy from Gulf Stream: test turbines about to be deployed. Denmark already gets 20% of its power from wind energy.

Andrew Revkin says that people have misconception that if we simply stop creating CO2 the temperature rise will stop, just like if I stop spending on my credit card there won’t be any interest increase.

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