It was not so long ago—only 108 years, within a great-grandma’s memory—that a person’s eyes first beheld the South Pole. When Roald Amundsen made it to the bottom of the world in 1911, it marked a new chapter in the human story. Our curious, inventive, and adaptable species, born on the sunny savanna, had reached that last spot of remote desolation on our home planet.
Little did we know that less than a century later, the hustle and bustle of our society would alter that ancient landscape forever.
The pristine environments at both poles of the Earth are changing, perhaps irreversibly, according to a new pair of federal studies. On Monday, a new NASA report warned that ancient glaciers in Antarctica are “waking up” and beginning to dump ice into the sea, which could eventually raise sea levels.
The following day, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its new Arctic Report Card, which finds that the top of the world is also thawing, melting, and breaking down. The Arctic is undergoing a period of “record and near-record warmth unlike any period on record,” the report says.
Emily Osborne, a scientist who leads Arctic research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, repeated this warning while speaking at a major geoscience conference on Tuesday. “The Arctic is experiencing the most unprecedented transition in human history,” she said.
The finding at the bottom of the world is in some ways the most shocking. Antarctica is split into two massive ice sheets, the East and the West. Researchers have long considered the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to be less worrisome: Though it contains enough frozen water to raise global sea levels by 173 feet, it sits at a high enough altitude to withstand the first century or so of warming.
The new finding may complicate that conclusion. Using a new database of global ice movements, NASA scientists found that several glaciers in the East Antarctic Ice Sheet are quickening their march toward the sea. Since 2008, a set of glaciers that feed Vincennes Bay—which is due south of Australia—lost about nine feet of overall height. Their speed has also increased, suggesting that these glaciers are dumping more ice into the ocean than researchers previously expected.
The Vincennes Bay glaciers are important because they block the inland Aurora and Wilkes ice basins from tumbling into the sea. If both basins collapsed, they could raise sea levels by 92 feet. “Taken together, they’re about four Greenlands [worth of sea-level rise],” said Catherine Walker, a glaciologist at NASA, speaking at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Monday.
Alex Gardner, another glaciologist at NASA, said that warming oceans—and not just a warming climate overall—seemed to be causing the decline in glacier levels. Some of the fastest-collapsing glaciers in the world—such as the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland—are primarily giving way because of warm ocean waters wearing at their icy fronts.
Both researchers said that existing models of sea-level rise may not account for these changes. “We weren’t expecting it because we never knew it was happening,” Walker said. “This isn’t new; it started happening 10 years ago. We just couldn’t see it.”
Not that the other end of the world is doing much better. NOAA’s new Arctic Report Card—an annual analysis, now in its 13th edition—finds that the world’s Far North is going through a tremendous upheaval. The report says that the catastrophic effects of climate change now wreak mayhem in every season of the year.
In the winter, when the Arctic Ocean has historically frozen into an enormous skating rink, sea ice now struggles to form at all. 2018 was the second-worst year on record for sea ice, the report says. The Arctic is now so warm that it hemorrhages ice even at the coldest, darkest time of the year: “During two weeks in February—normally the most important weeks for sea-ice growth in the year—the Bering Sea actually lost an area of ice the size of Idaho,” said Don Perovich, a geophysicist at Dartmouth, on Tuesday.
In the spring, the sea ice vanishes early, allowing algae blooms to envelop the open ocean. One warm-water species of algae produces toxins that trigger a disease called paralytic shellfish poisoning when absorbed by shellfish and then eaten by humans. Toxins in a single animal can kill a person in as little as two hours, according to the Alaska Division of Public Health. There is no antidote.
Cases of paralytic shellfish poisoning have increased sevenfold in Alaska over the past 40 years, the new report finds. Seals, walruses, and whales have also been killed by the disease.
Finally, in the summer, temperatures soar. In August, huge swaths of the Arctic Ocean surface measured 20 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. Ice now almost never makes it through the summer: Less than 1 percent of sea ice in 2018 formed more than four years ago. When scientists began tracking that figure back in the 1980s, one-sixth of all sea ice was at least four years old.
Animal life is cratering in response to these year-round changes. Caribou and reindeer herds have lost more than half their animals since the 1980s, said Howard Epstein, a professor at the University of Virginia. About 4.7 million caribou and reindeer roamed the tundra a few decades ago. Only 2.1 million do so today.
Meanwhile, micro-plastics—tiny shards of plastic from bottle caps, fishing gear, and the filters of cigarette butts—are pouring into the region. “The Arctic Ocean has a higher concentration of micro-plastics than any other global basin in the world,” said Karen Frey, a professor at Clark University. “All roads in the global ocean-circulation system lead to the Arctic.”
All these dire federal scientific reports might seem like they would prompt a federal governmental response. Tim Gallaudet, the interim administrator of NOAA and a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, was on hand to provide it. He hailed President Donald Trump’s signing of the Save Our Seas Act, a law to combat micro-plastic pollution that Congress passed unanimously in October. He also hailed the White House’s support for NOAA Arctic research.
But he did not endorse any attempt to fight climate change. “The data is the data. Changes are occurring,” he said. “What we need to do is adapt to those changes—and we can adapt as a country effectively by better understanding and improving our predictions.”
Asked whether he or any other senior NOAA official had talked to the president about climate change, he admitted he had not, and did not acknowledge any other efforts. “No,” he said. “I personally have not briefed the president on climate change.”