More Disturbing News From Antarctica
Scientists analyzing satellite data have determined that Antarctica underwent significant melting in the summer of 2005. An area the size of California melted briefly in the summer and then re-froze. As one can see on the map above, this was smack dab on top of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. This is the most significant melting that has occurred in Antarctica proper in thirty years, as opposed to the Antarctic peninsula which has been warming rapidly the past few decades.
This is disturbing to me for several reasons. I lose sleep over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS.) The reason this melting is significant, is because the liquid water can penetrate deep into cracks in the ice sheet, and who the hell knows what that might trigger. A few decades back scientists confidently predicted that the WAIS was stable and unlikely to collapse for a few hundred years at least. Since then the globe has continued to warm much more rapidly than predicted, especially in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. Scientists aren’t so sure any more that the WAIS is as stable as once thought.
The WAIS is a relic ice sheet actually, which is why people are worried about it. Unlike the Greenland Ice Cap or the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the WAIS actually for the most part rests on land that is below sea level. All of the other ice sheets of this type (marine based ice sheets) collapsed when the last ice age ended, the WAIS was protected by its location at the coldest spot on the planet. And this is not the first bad sign from studies of the WAIS either, it’s just the latest and worst sign.
And while there is no reason to panic, there’s no reason to completely dismiss these concerns either. When it comes right down to it, we know very little about how such large scale systems work. Both our data collection and our theoretical understanding of the WAIS is in its infancy. I’ve been watching the WAIS since the seventies, and will post about it when new news arrives. While the collapse of the WAIS would likely give plenty of advance warning, we’re not sure what the warning signs are and geologic processes involving mass movement can go from zero to sixty (so to speak) almost instantaneously.
Oh well, I’d say it will make great blogging if the WAIS collapses, but frankly I’d rather not. If the WAIS collapsed sea level would rise several metres. This would be a non-trivial problem to say the least. It would make Al Gore look right for one thing, and he’s already a sanctimonious self-promoting SOB, he’d no doubt become intolerable after the collapse of the WAIS. On the plus side, the subsequent global disruption from starvation, depression, and war would interfere with getting his message out. It would be small consolation though.
(The above NASA/JPL image is being legally used in accordance with NASA/JPL guidelines.)