Global Warming Clues from Melting Glaciers

TASIILAQ, Greenland — With a tense pilot gripping the stick, the helicopter hovered above the water, a red speck of machinery lost in a wilderness of rock and ice.

To the right, a great fjord stretched toward the sea, choked with icebergs. To the left loomed one of the immense glaciers that bring ice from the top of the Greenland ice sheet and dump it into the ocean.

Hanging out the sides of the craft, two scientists sent a measuring device plunging into the water, between ice floes. Near the bottom, it reported a temperature of 40 degrees. It was the latest in a string of troubling measurements showing that the water was warm enough to melt glaciers rapidly from below.

“That’s the highest we’ve seen this far up the fjord,” said one of the scientists, Fiammetta Straneo.

The temperature reading was a new scrap of information in the effort to answer one of the most urgent — and most widely debated — questions facing humanity: How fast is the world’s ice going to melt?

Scientists long believed that the collapse of the gigantic ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica would take thousands of years, with sea level possibly rising as little as seven inches in this century, about the same amount as in the 20th century.

But researchers have recently been startled to see big changes unfold in both Greenland and Antarctica.

As a result of recent calculations that take the changes into account, many scientists now say that sea level is likely to rise perhaps three feet by 2100 — an increase that, should it come to pass, would pose a threat to coastal regions the world over.

And the calculations suggest that the rise could conceivably exceed six feet, which would put thousands of square miles of the American coastline under water and would probably displace tens of millions of people in Asia.

The scientists say that a rise of even three feet would inundate low-lying lands in many countries, rendering some areas uninhabitable. It would cause coastal flooding of the sort that now happens once or twice a century to occur every few years. It would cause much faster erosion of beaches, barrier islands and marshes. It would contaminate fresh water supplies with salt.

In the United States, parts of the East Coast and Gulf Coast would be hit hard. In New York, coastal flooding could become routine, with large parts of Queens and Brooklyn especially vulnerable. About 15 percent of the urbanized land in the Miami region could be inundated. The ocean could encroach more than a mile inland in parts of North Carolina.

Abroad, some of the world’s great cities — London, Cairo, Bangkok, Venice and Shanghai among them — would be critically endangered by a three-foot rise in the sea.

Climate scientists readily admit that the three-foot estimate could be wrong. Their understanding of the changes going on in the world’s land ice is still primitive. But, they say, it could just as easily be an underestimate as an overestimate. One of the deans of American coastal studies, Orrin H. Pilkey of Duke University, is advising coastal communities to plan for a rise of at least five feet by 2100.

“I think we need immediately to begin thinking about our coastal cities — how are we going to protect them?” said John A. Church, an Australian scientist who is a leading expert on sea level. “We can’t afford to protect everything. We will have to abandon some areas.”

Sea-level rise has been a particularly contentious element in the debate over global warming. One published estimate suggested the threat was so dire that sea level could rise as much as 15 feet in this century. Some of the recent work that produced the three-foot projection was carried out specifically to counter more extreme calculations.

Global warming skeptics, on the other hand, contend that any changes occurring in the ice sheets are probably due to natural climate variability, not to greenhouse gases released by humans.

Such doubts have been a major factor in the American political debate over global warming, stalling efforts by Democrats and the Obama administration to pass legislation that would curb emissions of heat-trapping gases. Similar legislative efforts are likely to receive even less support in the new Congress, with many newly elected legislators openly skeptical about climate change.

A large majority of climate scientists argue that heat-trapping gases are almost certainly playing a role in what is happening to the world’s land ice. They add that the lack of policies to limit emissions is raising the risk that the ice will go into an irreversible decline before this century is out, a development that would eventually make a three-foot rise in the sea look trivial.

Melting ice is by no means the only sign that the earth is warming. Thermometers on land, in the sea and aboard satellites show warming. Heat waves, flash floods and other extreme weather events are increasing. Plants are blooming earlier, coral reefs are dying and many other changes are afoot that most climate scientists attribute to global warming.

Yet the rise of the sea could turn out to be the single most serious effect. While the United States is among the countries at greatest risk, neither it nor any other wealthy country has made tracking and understanding the changes in the ice a strategic national priority.

The consequence is that researchers lack elementary information. They have been unable even to measure the water temperature near some of the most important ice on the planet, much less to figure out if that water is warming over time. Vital satellites have not been replaced in a timely way, so that American scientists are losing some of their capability to watch the ice from space.

The missing information makes it impossible for scientists to be sure how serious the situation is.

“As a scientist, you have to stick to what you know and what the evidence suggests,” said Gordon Hamilton, one of the researchers in the helicopter. “But the things I’ve seen in Greenland in the last five years are alarming. We see these ice sheets changing literally overnight.”

An Ocean in Flux

The strongest reason to think that the level of the sea could undergo big changes in the future is that it has done so in the past.

With the waxing and waning of ice ages, driven by wobbles in the earth’s orbit, sea level has varied by hundreds of feet, with shorelines moving many miles in either direction. “We’re used to the shoreline being fixed, and it’s not,” said Robin E. Bell, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.

But at all times in the past, when the shoreline migrated, humans either had not evolved yet or consisted of primitive bands of hunter-gatherers who could readily move. By the middle of this century, a projected nine billion people will inhabit the planet, with many millions of them living within a few feet of sea level.

To a majority of climate scientists, the question is not whether the earth’s land ice will melt in response to the greenhouse gases those people are generating, but whether it will happen too fast for society to adjust.

Recent research suggests that the volume of the ocean may have been stable for thousands of years as human civilization has developed. But it began to rise in the 19th century, around the same time that advanced countries began to burn large amounts of coal and oil.

The sea has risen about eight inches since then, on average. That sounds small, but on a gently sloping shoreline, such an increase is enough to cause substantial erosion unless people intervene. Governments have spent billions in recent decades pumping sand onto disappearing beaches and trying to stave off the loss of coastal wetlands.

Scientists have been struggling for years to figure out if a similar pace of sea-level rise is likely to continue in this century — or whether it will accelerate. In its last big report, in 2007, the United Nations group that assesses climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said that sea level would rise at least seven more inches, and might rise as much as two feet, in the 21st century.

But the group warned that these estimates did not fully incorporate “ice dynamics,” the possibility that the world’s big ice sheets, as well as its thousands of smaller glaciers and ice caps, would start spitting ice into the ocean at a much faster rate than it could melt on land. Scientific understanding of this prospect was so poor, the climate panel said, that no meaningful upper limit could be put on the potential rise of sea level.

That report prompted fresh attempts by scientists to calculate the effect of ice dynamics, leading to the recent, revised projections of sea-level rise.

Satellite evidence suggests that the rise of the sea accelerated late in the 20th century, so that the level is now increasing a little over an inch per decade, on average — about a foot per century. Increased melting of land ice appears to be a major factor. Another is that most of the extra heat being trapped by human greenhouse emissions is going not to warm the atmosphere but to warm the ocean, and as it warms, the water expands.

With the study of the world’s land ice still in its early stages, scientists have lately been trying crude methods to figure out how much the pace might accelerate in coming decades.

One approach, pioneered by a German climate researcher named Stefan Rahmstorf, entails looking at the past relationship between the temperature of the earth and sea level, then making projections. Another, developed by a University of Colorado glaciologist named Tad Pfeffer, involves calculations about how fast the glaciers, if they keep speeding up, might be able to dump ice into the sea.

Those two methods yield approximately the same answer: that sea level could rise by 2 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet between now and 2100. A developing consensus among climate scientists holds that the best estimate is a little over three feet.

Calculations about the effect of a three-foot increase suggest that it would cause shoreline erosion to accelerate markedly. In places that once flooded only in a large hurricane, the higher sea would mean that a routine storm could do the trick. In the United States, an estimated 5,000 square miles of dry land and 15,000 square miles of wetlands would be at risk of permanent inundation, though the actual effect would depend on how much money was spent protecting the shoreline.

The worst effects, however, would probably occur in areas where land is sinking even as the sea rises. Some of the world’s major cities, especially those built on soft sediments at the mouths of great rivers, are in that situation. In North America, New Orleans is the premier example, with large parts of the city already sitting several feet below sea level.

Defenses can be built to keep out the sea, of course, like the levees of the New Orleans region and the famed dikes of the Netherlands. But the expense is likely to soar as the ocean rises, and such defenses are not foolproof, as Hurricane Katrina proved.

Storm surges battering the world’s coastlines every few years would almost certainly force people to flee inland. But it is hard to see where the displaced would go, especially in Asia, where huge cities — and even entire countries, notably Bangladesh — are at risk.

Moreover, scientists point out that if their projections prove accurate, the sea will not stop rising in 2100. By that point, the ice sheets could be undergoing extensive melting.

“Beyond a hundred years out, it starts to look really challenging,” said Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University. “You start thinking about every coastal city on the planet hiding behind a wall, with storms coming.”

The information problems are even more severe in Antarctica. Much of that continent is colder than Greenland, and its ice sheet is believed to be more stable, over all. But in recent years, parts of the ice sheet have started to flow rapidly, raising the possibility that it will destabilize in the same way that much of the world’s other ice has.

Certain measurements are so spotty for Antarctica that scientists have not been able to figure out whether the continent is losing or gaining ice. Scientists do not have good measurements of the water temperature beneath the massive, floating ice shelves that are helping to buttress certain parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica. Since the base of the ice sheet sits below sea level in that region, it has long been thought especially vulnerable to a warming ocean.

But the cavities beneath ice shelves and floating glaciers are difficult to reach, and scientists said that too little money had been spent to develop technologies that could provide continuing measurements.

Figuring out whether Antarctica is losing ice over all is essential, because that ice sheet contains enough water to raise global sea level by nearly 200 feet. The parts that appear to be destabilizing contain water sufficient to raise it perhaps 10 feet.

Daniel Schrag, a Harvard geochemist and head of that university’s Center for the Environment, praised the scientists who do difficult work studying ice, but he added, “The scale of what they can do, given the resources available, is just completely out of whack with what is required.”

Climate scientists note that while the science of studying ice may be progressing slowly, the world’s emissions of heat-trapping gases are not. They worry that the way things are going, extensive melting of land ice may become inevitable before political leaders find a way to limit the gases, and before scientists even realize such a point of no return has been passed.

“The past clearly shows that sea-level rise is getting faster and faster the warmer it gets,” Dr. Rahmstorf said. “Why should that process stop? If it gets warmer, ice will melt faster.”

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Justin Gillis from the New York Times

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