Antarctica Is Melting, and Giant Ice Cracks Are Just the Start

GR: Glaciers are melting at the North Pole, the South Pole, and in mountains around the planet. Sea level is rising. If we stop adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere now, melting might stop within a few centuries. At that point, sea level will be more than 30 feet higher than it is now. If we continue to add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, we can expect 70 feet of sea-level rise before stability is reached. Stability at that point will occur because we will have stopped producing greenhouse gases–we will have little working technology left. Cutting emissions immediately is the only way we might limit the rise to 30 feet.

In East Antarctica, Australian researchers probe for crevasses on Totten Glacier—another one that has begun to look vulnerable—before deploying instruments to measure how fast it’s moving and thinning (photo by Camille Seaman).

As you will see as you read this article, critical measurements are underway to determine how fast the ice is melting. It is expensive to make the measurements that will give us the ability to predict and plan for rising sea level. Less money than presidential trips to Florida to play golf, but substantial amounts nevertheless. This is just the type of necessary spending the Trump administration (actually the corporatists controlling Congress) is intent on ending. Isn’t this a crime against nature and humanity?

Melting Antarctic Glaciers

(The following story appears in the July 2017 issue of National Geographic Magazine.)

“The massive iceberg poised to break off the Larsen C Ice Shelf may be a harbinger of a continent-wide collapse that would swamp coastal cities around the world.

“Seen from above, the Pine Island Ice Shelf is a slow-motion train wreck. Its buckled surface is scarred by thousands of large crevasses. Its edges are shredded by rifts a quarter mile across. In 2015 and 2016 a 225-square-mile chunk of it broke off the end and drifted away on the Amundsen Sea. The water there has warmed by more than a degree Fahrenheit over the past few decades, and the rate at which ice is melting and calving has quadrupled.

“On the Antarctic Peninsula, the warming has been far greater—nearly five degrees on average. That’s why a Delaware-size iceberg is poised to break off the Larsen C Ice Shelf and why smaller ice shelves on the peninsula have long since disintegrated entirely into the waters of the Weddell Sea. But around the Amundsen Sea, a thousand miles to the southwest on the Pacific coast of Antarctica, the glaciers are far larger and the stakes far higher. They affect the entire planet.

A startling sunset reddens the Lemaire Channel, off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The continent’s coastal ice is crumbling as the sea and air around it warm (photo by Camille Seaman).


“These are the fastest retreating glaciers on the face of the Earth,” says Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Rignot has studied the region for more than two decades, using radar from aircraft and satellites, and he believes the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is only a matter of time. The question is whether it will take 500 years or fewer than a hundred—and whether humanity will have time to prepare.

“We have to get these numbers right,” Rignot says. “But we have to be careful not to waste too much time doing that.”

“Getting the predictions right requires measurements that can be made only by going to the ice. In December 2012 a red-and-white Twin Otter plane skimmed low over the Pine Island Ice Shelf. The pilot dragged the plane’s skis through the snow, then lifted off and circled back to make sure he hadn’t uncovered any crevasses. After the plane landed, a single person disembarked. Tethered to the plane by a rope and harness, he probed the snow with an eight-foot rod.” –Douglas Fox–Photographs by Camille Seaman. (This story appears in the July 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine. Continue: Antarctica Is Melting, and Giant Ice Cracks Are Just the Start.)

The west side of the Antarctic Peninsula is warming several times faster than the rest of the planet. Ninety percent of its 674 glaciers are now in retreat and are calving more icebergs into the sea, like this one in Andvord Bay (photo by Camille Seaman).

Glaciers Melting in Glacier National Park

GR: Scientists have used repeated photographs to study glaciers for more than a century (Rogers et al. 1984). Arthur Johnson published the earliest photographic study of glacier change in Glacier National Park in 1980 (U. S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1180, 29 pp.). By 1980, the glaciers had already begun melting and shrinking. The photos in this article show that all the glaciers in Glacier National Park will soon be gone. As pointed out elsewhere, mountain glaciers store winter precipitation and release it during summer months. With more precipitation falling in winter as rain instead of snow, less water is stored in glacial ice, and this leads to shortages during summer.

“As the National Park Service turns 100, we’re looking at how climate change affects our shared heritage and what the agency is doing about it. This is our fourth story in a series.

“National Parks have grown up with photography. So it’s only fitting that in the last days of ice in Montana’s Glacier National Park, Lisa McKeon is using a camera to show how quickly climate change has killed off the park’s namesakes.

“After all, it’s one thing to note that of the park’s 150 glaciers that existed in the late 1800s, only 25 of them remain today. But it’s another to see what that cold, hard fact looks like on the landscape.

“For nearly 20 years, McKeon, a U.S. Geological Survey biologist, has prowled dusty archives to find old photos showing the splendor of the park’s glaciers in decades past. Those images have taken her to bushwhacking through the forest and to the highest reaches of the park so she can recreate those images.

“Put the old and the new images side-by-side and it’s impossible to ignore the visual evidence of how rapidly climate change has eaten away at the ice.

“These photos really resonate with people,” McKeon said. “When we first started taking them years ago, people kept asking for more. That first summer was spent filling media requests.”

Boulder Glacier with visitors in 1932 and bare land in 1988. The ice has shrunk so much that it’s no longer considered an active glacier. Credit: George Grant/Glacier National Park (top). Jerry De Santo/University of Montana image 642.001 (bottom).

“Soon there will be no glaciers left for McKeon to photograph. Scientists project that Glacier’s ice could disappear completely in just 15 years.

“This, more than anything, is the most visceral impact of climate change across the National Park Service — or the world for that matter. Rising seas, changing weather patterns and disappearing species will become more pressing as the planet continues to warm. But for these glaciers, this is the end of the road and it couldn’t be more obvious to the human eye or camera lens.

“Soon all that will be left are images like the ones McKeon is capturing now, which will endure as a searing testament to the changes humans have wrought to one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Park visitors eating dinner at Cracker Lake, a glacial-fed lake in Glacier National Park’s backcountry. Credit: Jacob Frank/National Park Service

“People have been coming to this rugged corner of northwest Montana and documenting their visits from behind the lens for more than a century. The photographic technology has changed from glass plate negatives to film to digital, but the urge to capture and share this spectacular landscape hasn’t.

“You can talk all you want about how beautiful this place is, but show someone a picture and then it’s crystal clear how amazing it is,” Jacob Frank, a ranger at Glacier and the park’s semi-official photographer, said.

“Glacier National Park is an area of pristine wilderness, 1 million acres of breath-taking beauty that’s at the center of the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem that spans 10 million acres on either side of the U.S.-Canada border. The park is flush with grizzly bears, mountain goats, wildflower meadows, and rushing rivers. But its namesake glaciers have always been the centerpiece of one of the National Parks Service’s best known parks.” –Brian Kahn (Continue: National Parks | Climate Central Special Report.)