Holthaus: Quick Climate Action Can Still Minimize Antarctic Ice Loss
There’s still time to prevent the nightmare scenario that could flow from the massive loss of Antarctic ice since 1992—40% of it in the last five years—U.S. meteorologist and veteran climate hawk Eric Holthaus writes on Grist. And getting to that point might help usher in an era of international climate cooperation that scientists are already beginning to create.
This week, a special edition of the journal Nature brings together a half-dozen papers by some of the world’s top experts on Antarctica. The studies combine satellite data, ground measurements, and computer models to show “a three-fold increase in the pace at which icebergs are breaking away from land,” Holthaus reports, with the continent losing a mind-bending 159 billion tons of ice since 2013, and three trillion tons since 1992.
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“As we observe the system for longer, we see more and more changes of the type we feared could happen as the climate warms,” wrote scientist Helen Fricker of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, in an email to Grist.
Numbers on this scale are the stuff of horror movies, and Holthaus acknowledges that the risk is dire. “Antarctica’s glaciers are massive enough to flood every coastal city on Earth,” he writes. “So it’s no exaggeration to say that what happens in Antarctica over the next few decades will determine the fate of not just Miami and Mumbai, but also the course of human history.”
And yet, “if we’re lucky and quickly start cutting emissions, Antarctica’s glaciers might mostly remain in place,” he adds. “More than any other region on Earth, Antarctica holds humanity hostage—but humanity also has a way out.”
The key to Holthaus’ conditional optimism is that the scientists’ warning comes in time to do something about it. “The next few years will be a pivotal period for decision-making with regard to Antarctica,” Fricker said. “Depending on what is decided, we could be looking at significant and irreversible changes over the next 50 years.”
But it isn’t as though we don’t know what to do.
“Quickly slash emissions, and the ice shelves should still remain stable across most of the continent,” Holthaus writes. “Doing so would require an unprecedented era of global cooperation, but the collaborative research taking place right now in Antarctica—an effort shared by dozens of scientists from 17 countries in this week’s update alone—could serve as inspiration. It’s a symbol of what’s possible when people work together for a common cause.”
Christina Hulbe, a polar expert at New Zealand’s University of Otago who’s been travelling to Antarctica since 1991 but wasn’t involved in this week’s report, reinforced Holthaus’ point.
“If you are optimistic, you can find good news here,” she said. “Some amount of future change has been locked in by our past decisions, but there is still time to avoid the worst that can happen.”