Even if you're lucky enough that there's an ice runway where you want to land in Antarctica, that doesn't mean the weather will allow you to. And then, even if your plane is equipped to fly for eight hours, at some point, you do have to find a way to stop flying. When that happens to the scientists of the International Collaboration for Exploration of the Cryosphere Through Aerogeophysical Profiling (ICECAP) team, they manage to land "in the middle of nowhere," according to on-board geophysicist Jamin Greenbaum. Then they camp out. Eventually they'll be able to make it back to their base.
Greenbaum tells me he's never been scared. Even though the plane is an Indiana Jones-style Douglas DC-3 that served in World War II. It can deploy skis as landing gear when necessary, and the pilots are a Calgary-based crew, expert at flying in suboptimal conditions.
"We have had some harried situations," Greenbaum said. For the past eight years he has done annual two-to-five-month deployments to Antarctica to survey the ice. He rides in the cargo hull of the plane, along with 1,000 pounds of ice-penetrating radar, lasers, and magnetic-field mapping equipment. "You know, it's Antarctica; in 1,500 hours you're going to have some bad weather. But no, I've never once gotten nervous."
It's believable; his manner is steady. When we spoke it was broken only by excited descriptions of data collection equipment and the latest findings of the ICECAP team, released this week, which he called "very alarming."
That alarm is not his alone, nor is it limited to the scientific community. It is because of the ICECAP team that East Antarctica has been a trending topic on Facebook this week—in case you didn't notice. Or you did, and thought it strange, even by the standards of Facebook trending topics. In recent years most people have been talking about West Antarctica. West Antarctica this and West Antarctica that.
The West Antarctic ice sheet is unstable, and the melting of a major section that contains enough ice to raise sea levels four feet "appears unstoppable," according to NASA. That alone could be enough to devastate coastal cities worldwide within the not-distant future, not to mention increase storm surges and anomalous severe-weather events worldwide. If that concept hasn't yet left you subject to "eco-anxiety," a relatively new concept wherein the sight of an idling tailpipe can render a person catatonic or unwilling to bear children, this week's news may.
The ICECAP research team, a tight-knit collaboration drawing from the U.S., U.K., Australia, and France, reported in the journal Nature Geoscience that the largest and fastest-thinning glacier on the east side, Totten Glacier, is subject to the same warm-water currents that are famously eroding the western edge of the continent.
The study explains how warm water is gaining access to the base of the floating part of Totten Glacier, by at least two "gateways" into a large cavity in the ice shelf. Until now there was no evidence that these gateways existed; the sea floor was thought to be too shallow for the warmest water to get in. But this explains the existence of the cavity, and the potential for it to continue to grow.
An oddity about the polar regions is that you can get warm water below cold water, which is not intuitive, in that normally heat rises. Because it is extremely salty, this water doesn't. It can ride along the floor through valleys and melt the glacier from underneath.
And while Totten Glacier is massive, more important than its own mass is the inland ice that it holds back: a "catchment" that is three-quarters the size of Texas. The glacier is like a plug in a bathtub drain, and that plug is melting. Within the catchment area behind it is enough ice to raise sea levels by eleven feet. "And that's a conservative lower limit," said Greenbaum, who says the future of East Antarctica is in every way as significant as what's happening in the West. "It would take [melting] all of the glaciers in West Antarctica that drain its interior basin to raise sea levels by that much."
Totten Glacier is far from entirely melting, but the discovery suggests that known ice-thinning will accelerate. As excessive carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to trap heat, the oceans will continue warming, which will continue melting glaciers, which are so immense that they contain most of the world's fresh water. The ice along the coast is thick and deep, about 1.25 miles below sea level in places, explains Greenbaum, who spends his non-Antarctic time at University of Texas at Austin Institute for Geophysics—though he's constantly Skyping with his colleagues in Tasmania. The enormous depth of the ice is also part of the problem, because when there is enough erosion that the ice starts to float, the volume contributes to the rising sea level, "so the thickness actually works against you."
Global measures to reduce carbon emissions have been meager and insufficient to prevent fundamental and profound disruption of human existence, and so forth. The season premier of Vice's HBO show last week depicted the already devastating effects on an underwater village in southern Bangladesh. Similar images of people in the region being forced out of their homes by encroaching sea water have been in the news since at least 2009.
Obvious as this is to people living this reality, and people like Greenbaum who regularly measure glaciers, still only two in three Americans "thinks" that global warming is happening. That rate of acceptance has been steady for a decade. This winter has been "cooler than average" along the East Coast of the United States, according to a report yesterday from the National Climate Center. That feels like understatement at this point. But on a global scale, it was actually yet again the warmest on record.
In the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, filmmaker Robert Kenner (of Food, Inc.) shows how professional climate-change deniers like Marc Morano profit by making that desired belief an easy one simply by cultivating uncertainty. "I'm not a scientist, but I play one on TV," he says in the film, referring to his appearances on cable news shows as a talking head. There he "debates" scientists, often on Fox News, as a form of pandering to viewers who want to believe that legitimate people will tell them what they want to hear. He traffics in doubt, he admits in the film. That is all it takes to lead to legislative inaction: Let everyone keep burning fossil fuels until there is more evidence that this is a bad thing. Even though there is abundant evidence; more than there is for most things we do to protect and preserve our health and general continued existence.
Meanwhile Greenbaum and the ICECAP team are also mapping the tectonics under Antarctica. Geothermal heat flux has important implications for how fast the ice can move, factoring into the model of migration toward the coastline. The point is always to understand how the glaciers are going to continue to change, and how that's going to affect sea levels. Even if most of the research reports won't be super popular on Facebook. "This one just got really big because it uncovered this mechanism that makes a lot of sense," Greenbaum said. "Now we can predict change better than before."
Greenbaum is vague when it comes to predicting exactly how quickly Totten's effects on sea levels will play out, as are other climate scientists with regard to the effects in the west. This week's finding is a step toward a better predictive model. The team will monitor the ocean and use numerical computation models to try and map out the future behavior of the glacier in the context of this newly discovered topography and warm water. I made a sort of stupid dad joke about him not buying coastal property any time soon, and he didn't laugh, but explained: "One of our goals is to properly inform coastal communities about what infrastructure is needed."
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