Arctic Warming, Glacial Melt, and Climate Change

[published in CounterPunch, 18 March, 2016]

Earlier this week it was announced that Prime Minister Trudeau and President Obama are committing themselves to fight climate change announcing measures “from a 45% cut in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry to protections for a rapidly warming Arctic.”  Coming on the heels of COP 21 (or CMP 11) which was held in Paris last fall, that meeting put on the table various proposals to reduce global warming, the outcome of which were two primary agreements: to limit global warming to less than 2°C with an effort to limit increases to 1.5°C compared to pre-industrial levels (Article 2.1(a)) and “to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century” (Article 4.1).  And this comes just in time since as of 3 March, 2016, the heat wave in the Northern Hemisphere has broken the 2°C above “normal” mark since recorded history, “and likely the first time since human civilization began.”

And just before his encounter, President of the Pacific Institute in California, Dr Peter Gleick,  presented evidence which  demonstrates a connection between rising temperatures and dangerous storms in the northern hemisphere.  Recently Gleick spoke with The Independent detailing how warm temperatures in the Arctic are behind the creation of catastrophic storms in the northern hemisphere. Gleick’s research shows a clear relationship between the rising temperatures in the northern hemisphere and the reduction of sea ice and the 4°C higher temperatures in the Arctic over the last 30 years, comparing these records to the 1951-1980 average.

Gleick is no stranger to the climate change debate when in 2014 he had already discussed the links between climate change and the California draught.  And Gleick goes on to address what he terms the “more interesting” question of the influence of climate change on the California draught:

We know that climate is changing and that climate changes influence weather. That “influence” can take many forms: changes in storm patterns, precipitation frequency or intensity, the form of precipitation, and so on. And we know that there are many uncertainties about the nature and extent of these changes. But I say the answer to this specific question is “yes” for one simple reason: current average temperatures in California, like average temperatures worldwide, are higher today than they were in the past century because of human-caused climate change.

Gleick’s work on climate change has been able to chart singular events such as the California drought and melting glaciers and directly connect these events to climate change.  The evidence is today considered unambiguous and Gleick is just one of many scientists making headway in publishing studies on the causes and effects of climate change.

In 2008, Carolina Pagli, a geophysicist at the University of Leeds (UK), and Freysteinn Sigmundsson, a vulcanologist at the University of Iceland,  co-authored a paper which discusses the possible links between global warming and ice-capped volcanoes in Iceland.  In their study, “Will Present Day Glacier Retreat Increase Volcanic Activity?” the authors note that since 1890 approximately 10% of Iceland’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull, at 8,500 sq km (3,280 sq miles) with an average thickness of 400 metres and a maximum thickness of 1,000 metres, has melted.  As a result of the rising temperature in the Arctic, this particular glacier has effected the activation of volcanoes due to glacial retreat:  “[O]ur model indicates that a significant volume of additional magma, as high as 1.4 km3, could be produced every century under Vatnajökull due to present day glacial retreat, suggesting that increased volcanic activity may be expected in the future.”  In other words, there is also a circular connection between volcanic activity, glacial retreat, and climate change, each one inflecting the other as melting ice causes a release of pressure on the ice-capped volcanos thus decreasing the pressure on the rock which is the perfect condition for this rock to turn into liquid magma; and inversely with every eruption of volcanic magma comes the disintegration of glaciers such as Vatnajökull.  The results of both conditions is a continually warming climate.

Moreover, recent data suggests that the land mass surrounding Vatnajökull is rising by approximately 25 millimeters every year, a condition called post-glacial rebound or isostatic rebound.  So when the Vatnajökull glacier will have completely melted, the land under it will eventually rise to 100 meters (328 feet).  Isostatic rebound is a gradual recovery of the earth’s outermost layer after being crushed down by the weight of glaciers.  We can see isostatic rebound throughout the world today, from the Hudson Bay (Canada), to the Gulf of Bothnia (Finland/Sweden), and most of Scotland.  However, make no mistake, the falling sea-levels in association to this pattern is not proof against climate change as some of the climate change deniers would suggest.  In fact, some of this shifting of previously depressed land masses can have radical effects on the earth and its populations, most notably the induction of earthquakes and the affect to the earth’s rate of rotation.

Just as harsher winters do not mean that climate change is not real, it is imperative that we  examine all of the indicators of climate change which today interconnect the data and confirm the science behind climate change.  From draught, increased volcanic activity, growing incidents of earthquake, to glacial melt, we possess the knowledge which demonstrates causal links between certain land masses rising, sea levels climbing, the dwindling of Arctic ice, greenhouse gases, and predicted landslide activity in  the Andes, Himalayas, European Alps and elsewhere.  Despite the lip service paid by politicians, be they in Paris or Washington, it is imperative that we conjointly push our leaders for a realisation of their promises in addition to our collective and individual acts of ecological health and consciousness raising.