“The rift has accelerated since end of the last year”, reported all the major news agencies in North America and elsewhere. “It may get close to a full break, never seen before in the history,” they added.
This “breaking news” is about Antarctica’s fourth-largest ice shelf, Larsen C, measuring 48,600 sq km, five times the area of Israel, irreversibly breaking away, several kilometres at a time, from its mother continent due to exceptionally high temperatures.
NASA and British Antarctic Survey scientists have in the last three decades observed a dramatic collapsing of smaller parts, Larsen A and B, as noted by the Nobel Prize-winning Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Larsen C, which is the largest of the three, is now clinging by the umbilical cord of about 25 km before finally breaking away.
The ABC drama is captivating, because these would constitute some of the world’s biggest icebergs ever to break off from an Antarctic ice shelf. What is more, it is taking place early in 2017, when the ABC of the “disruptive” policies of US President Donald Trump on climate change have also started unfolding.
The year gone by has decidedly broken the temperature record as the warmest year since modern observations began in 1880. This year is already turning to be the second-warmest in recorded history, according to data released recently by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NASA, indeed, said in a statement that January 2017 was the third-warmest January in nearly 140 years of record-keeping.
The National Snow and Ice Data Centre at Boulder, Colorado, has recorded that the cover of Arctic ice, which expands and contracts in an annual cycle during winter and summer, probably reached its maximum size this year on March 7, when it spanned 14.42 million square kilometres, breaking the record as the smallest winter maximum extent ever observed in records dating to 1979.
While melting of the floating icebergs does not cause the sea level to rise, melting of the large volume icebergs makes the way to glaciers from the land mass of the Arctic and Antarctic to pour into the oceans, resulting in the sea level rising. What is more frightening is that loss of ice would cause more global warming because the heat from the Sun would get absorbed and not get reflected back due to loss of white cover of ice. The vicious feedback loop could trigger record-breaking runaway warming never seen in human history.
Loss of ice cover in the Arctic and Antarctic is not the only reason for the uncontrolled and accelerated warming of the earth. An active layer of ice of 0.3 to 0.4 metres thickness along the Arctic coast and deep in southern Siberia and the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, is about 24 per cent of the ice-free land area on our planet, equivalent to 19 million square kilometres — the area of China and the US combined.
This is called permafrost, because of the permanency of ice there. A study released by Nature Climate Change on April 10 has revealed that global warming will thaw about 20 per cent more permafrost than previously thought, potentially releasing significant amounts of greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide trapped under the layer of ice into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Around 35 million people live in the permafrost zone. A widespread thaw could cause the ground to become unstable, putting roads and buildings at risk of collapse. Such runaway release of greenhouse gases has already begun as the Arctic is warming at around twice the rate as the rest of the world. There is fear of not only mass coastal migration of human population due to rising sea levels but also from high latitude regions. The entire biodiversity is likely to be in mass-migration in search of survival.
Rising temperatures and sea levels, increasing acidity of the oceans due to additional absorbed carbon dioxide, escalation of intensity and surge of frequency of extreme weather events like droughts and floods are forcing land-based bio-species to move polewards by an average of 17 km per decade — and marine species by 72 km per decade as per new analysis recently presented by the University of Tasmania.
The New Scientist magazine said in March 2017 that ticks that spread Lyme disease in animals and humans are moving towards North America and Europe as the winter there is getting milder. A 10-fold rise has been seen in the UK since 2001. Lyme disease is the most common infection in humans following a tick bite in the US. The Centre for Disease Control estimates that 300,000 Americans contract Lyme disease each year, calling it “a major US public health problem”. This “ticking” time bomb in 2017 and 2018 is predicted to cause major Lyme disease outbreaks in areas that have not faced the threats any time before.
The benefits to humans being provided by other species, and the complex ecosystems they live in, are also at risk due to rising temperatures and acidity of oceans. Mangroves, for example, are migrating pole wards in Australia and in the southern US, meaning the storm protection and fish nurseries they provide are being lost in some places.
Food production, including coffee and wine that need a cooler climate, will move towards higher latitudes, causing economic and social destabilisation in poor countries like Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Costa Rica. Fish stocks that depend on the marine supply chain will migrate to cooler and less acidic waters as the coral reefs get bleached as has already happened in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
Iceland’s cooler water has already witnessed a quantum jump from 1,700 tonnes in 2006 to 120,000 tonnes in 2010. The memories of the “mackerel war” of the 1980s and recent fish wars in troubled waters have heightened the possibility of “cod wars” in the post-Cold War era.
A pioneering study by Science last year stated that current warming (just one degree Celsius) has already left an obvious mark on 77 of 94 different species and ecological processes. The study hints at possible genetic changes due to climate change and even physical traits including body size and shape.
The number of authoritative studies on climate change in the first quarter of 2017 by prestigious institutes around the world also stand to break the record this year. Last but not the least of these is the study released in March by the American Psychological Association (APA), which says that climate change also takes a significant toll on mental health.
The loss of personal and professional identity, loss of a sense of control, feelings of helplessness, fear and fatalism, and worry about actual or potential impact of climate change can lead to stress that can build over time and eventually lead to stress-related problems such as substance abuse and depression, according to research reviewed in the report.
Do not we already witness this transformation among the leaders and among us who elect them?
(The author Rajendra Shende is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre, an IIT alumnus and former Director UNEP. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)