The race to understand Antarctica’s most terrifying glacier

Jon Gertner writes:

Few places in Antarctica are more difficult to reach than Thwaites Glacier, a Florida-sized hunk of frozen water that meets the Amundsen Sea about 800 miles west of McMurdo. Until a decade ago, barely any scientists had ever set foot there, and the glacier’s remoteness, along with its reputation for bad weather, ensured that it remained poorly understood. Yet within the small community of people who study ice for a living, Thwaites has long been the subject of dark speculation. If this mysterious glacier were to “go bad”—glaciologist-­speak for the process by which a glacier breaks down into icebergs and eventually collapses into the ocean—it might be more than a scientific curiosity. Indeed, it might be the kind of event that changes the course of civilization.

In December 2008, a Penn State scientist named Sridhar Anandakrishnan and five of his colleagues made the epic journey to Thwaites, two days from McMurdo by plane, tractor, and snowmobile. All glaciers flow, but satellites and airborne radar missions had revealed that something worrisome was happening on Thwaites: The glacier was destabilizing, dumping ever more ice into the sea. On color-coded maps of the region, its flow rate went from stable blue to raise-the-alarms red. As Anandakrishnan puts it, “Thwaites started to pop.”

The change wasn’t necessarily cause for alarm. Big glaciers can speed up or slow down for reasons that scientists still don’t completely grasp. But Anandakrishnan knew that Thwaites’ unusual characteristics—it is shaped like a wedge, with the thin front end facing the ocean—left it vulnerable to losing vast quantities of ice quickly. What’s more, its size was something to reckon with. Many glaciers resemble narrow rivers that thread through mountain valleys and move small icebergs leisurely into the sea, like a chute or slide. Thwaites, if it went bad, would behave nothing like that. “Thwaites is a terrifying glacier,” Anandakrishnan says simply. Its front end measures about 100 miles across, and its glacial basin—the thick part of the wedge, extending deep into the West Antarctic interior—runs anywhere from 3,000 to more than 4,000 feet deep. A few years before Anandakrishnan’s first expedition, scientists had begun asking whether warming waters at the front edge could be playing a part in the glacier’s sudden stirring. But he wanted to know what was going on deep below Thwaites, where its ice met the earth. [Continue reading…]

Rapid warming caused largest extinction event ever on Earth, report says

The Guardian reports:

Rapid global warming caused the largest extinction event in the Earth’s history, which wiped out the vast majority of marine and terrestrial animals on the planet, scientists have found.

The mass extinction, known as the “great dying”, occurred around 252m years ago and marked the end of the Permian geologic period. The study of sediments and fossilized creatures show the event was the single greatest calamity ever to befall life on Earth, eclipsing even the extinction of the dinosaurs 65m years ago.

Up to 96% of all marine species perished while more than two-thirds of terrestrial species disappeared. The cataclysm was so severe it wiped out most of the planet’s trees, insects, plants, lizards and even microbes.

Scientists have theorized causes for the extinction, such as a giant asteroid impact. But US researchers now say they have pinpointed the demise of marine life to a spike in Earth’s temperatures, warning that present-day global warming will also have severe ramifications for life on the planet. [Continue reading…]

Portrait of the Earth at the threshold of climate catastrophe

The Guardian reports:

On Sunday morning hundreds of politicians, government officials and scientists will gather in the grandeur of the International Congress Centre in Katowice, Poland. It will be a familiar experience for many. For 24 years the annual UN climate conference has served up a reliable diet of rhetoric, backroom talks and dramatic last-minute deals aimed at halting global warming.

But this year’s will be a grimmer affair – by far. As recent reports have made clear, the world may no longer be hovering at the edge of destruction but has probably staggered beyond a crucial point of no return. Climate catastrophe is now looking inevitable. We have simply left it too late to hold rising global temperatures to under 1.5C and so prevent a future of drowned coasts, ruined coral reefs, spreading deserts and melted glaciers.

One example was provided last week by a UN report that revealed attempts to ensure fossil fuel emissions peak by 2020 will fail. Indeed the target will not even be reached by 2030. Another, by the World Meteorological Organization, said the past four years had been the warmest on record and warned that global temperatures could easily rise by 3-5C by 2100, well above that sought-after goal of 1.5C. The UK will not be exempt either. The Met Office said summer temperatures could now be 5.4C hotter by 2070.

At the same time, prospects of reaching global deals to halt emissions have been weakened by the spread of rightwing populism. Not much to smile about in Katowice.

Nor will the planet’s woes end in 2100. Although most discussions use the year as a convenient cut-off point for describing Earth’s likely fate, the changes we have already triggered will last well beyond that date, said Svetlana Jevrejeva, at the National Oceanography Centre, Liverpool. She has studied sea-level rises that will be triggered by melting ice sheets and expanding warm seawater in a world 3-5C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times, and concludes these could reach 0.74 to 1.8 metres by 2100. This would be enough to deluge Pacific and Indian Ocean island states and displace millions from Miami, Guangzhou, Mumbai and other low-lying cities. The total cost to the planet could top £11trillion.

Even then the seas will not stop rising, Jevrejeva added. “They will continue to climb for centuries even after greenhouse-gas levels have been stabilised. We could experience the highest-ever global sea-level rise in the history of human civilisation.”

Vast tracts of prime real estate will be destroyed – at a time when land will be needed with unprecedented desperation. Earth’s population stands at seven billion today and is predicted to rise to nine billion by 2050 and settle at over 11 billion by 2100 – when climate change will have wrecked major ecosystems and turned farmlands to dust bowls.

Unfortunately many experts believe Earth’s population will actually peak well beyond 11 billion. “It could reach 15 billion,” said Sarah Harper, of Oxford’s Institute of Population Ageing. “All sorts of factors suggest women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, will still want to have relatively high numbers of children and this might keep the world’s population approaching 15 billion rather than 12 billion.”

The world will have double its present numbers – but with hugely reduced areas of fertile land to provide food. We will be living in a shrunken, scorched planet bursting with human beings. Somaliland gives a grim vision of this future.

In the past few years climate change has killed 70% of its livestock and forced tens of thousands of families to flee from its scorched interior to live in refugee camps. “You can touch it, the climate change, in Somaliland. It is real. It is here,” the country’s environment minister, Shukri Ismail Bandare, said in the Financial Times last week.

Sudan and Kenya are also victims of a drought that has dried the Horn of Africa faster than at any other time in the past 2,000 years. Similarly, in Vietnam, thousands a year are abandoning the once fertile Mekong Delta as rising seawater pollutes paddy fields. By 2050, the World Bank says more than 140 million will become climate refugees.

It will be bad for humans, but catastrophic for Earth’s other inhabitants. Arctic ice loss threatens polar bears, droughts imperil monarch butterflies, and koala habitats are being destroyed by bush fires. In all, about a sixth of all species now face extinction, say scientists, although in the end no creature or plant will be safe. “Even the most resilient species will inevitably fall victim as extreme stresses drive ecosystems to collapse,” said Giovanni Strona of Europe’s Joint Research Centre in a report last week on climate change. [Continue reading…]

Air pollution is shaving years from people’s lives

McClatchy reports:

People could add years to their lives in California and other smog-plagued parts of the world if authorities could reduce particulate pollution — soot from cars and industry — to levels recommended by the World Health Organization, a new study reported Monday.

No other large U.S. city would benefit more than Fresno, which has soot concentrations at roughly twice the WHO guidelines. Fresno residents would live a year longer if the region could meet the health organization’s recommended levels of exposure, according to Monday’s study by the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago.

The average Los Angeles resident could add eights months of life. The average Sacramento resident would add nearly three. [Continue reading…]

Trump plans on keeping his coal warrior in charge of the EPA

HuffPost reports:

President Donald Trump said Friday he plans to nominate Andrew Wheeler to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, installing the former coal lobbyist permanently in a position he’s filled in an acting role since July.

Speaking at a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony at the White House, Trump said: “Acting administrator, who I tell you is going to be made permanent, he’s done a fantastic job and I want to congratulate him.”

Jeff Goodell writes:

If you could design the ideal character to assure the continuing domination of Big Coal and Big Oil in America and to reaffirm their faith in their God-given right to cook the climate in pursuit of profit, that character would look a lot like acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. And the odd thing is, if you met “Andy,” as his many friends call him, at one of his popular Halloween parties at his brick house in suburban Alexandria, Virginia, you would probably think he was a great guy. He’s 53, gray hair, glasses, a stout Midwesterner with a warm and friendly manner. He is unfailingly civil to everyone, no matter if you are right, left, enviro or Oklahoma wildcatter. He is likely to ply you with homemade Cincinnati chili or tell you about his hike up Mount Kilimanjaro or remind you that when he worked in the U.S. Senate some people called him “the Werewolf.” You might notice he’s wearing socks with little penguins on them, as he often does. And if you make a joke that connects the penguins on his socks with the disappearing ice in Antarctica due to the fossil fuels burned by his pals in the oil and coal industry, he will probably just laugh. “Andy’s a hard guy not to love,” says Chris Hessler, a lobbyist and former Senate staffer who has known Wheeler for more than a decade.

But make no mistake, Wheeler is one of the most skilled regulatory hitmen the fossil-fuel industry has ever deployed. Compared to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, his clownishly corrupt and incompetent predecessor, Wheeler is a no-nonsense professional, a man with vast experience in the dark corners of the Senate who can crawl through the most fetid lobbyist dungeons and emerge with the name of the right congressional staffer to call to tweak a bill that’s heading for the floor. Pruitt, on the other hand, who had come to Washington from the wilds of Oklahoma, was almost comically ineffective at rolling back the laws he made such a show of attacking as he embroiled himself in no fewer than 13 scandals during his 18-month tenure.

Wheeler won’t make the same mistakes. “Under Trump, the EPA’s mission is to deliver for the Republican Party’s fossil-fuel overlords,” Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse tells me in an e-mail. “Under Wheeler, I don’t think that will change.” What will change is his mission plan. “Wheeler is the embodiment of the anti-regulatory ‘deep state’ in Washington,” says Ken Cook, president of the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group. “His goal is not just to roll back the environmental progress made under President Obama, but to weaken and deconstruct the entire regulatory system at the EPA. He’s playing the long game. And that’s exactly what makes him so dangerous.” [Continue reading…]

Humanity is destroying life on Earth

 

The Guardian reports:

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.

The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.

“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”

“This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.” [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports:

The Chinese government, reversing a 25-year ban, announced on Monday that it would allow the use of rhinoceros horns and tiger bones in medicine, a move that environmentalists described as a significant setback for efforts to protect the animals from extinction.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, said in a policy directive that it would legalize the use of rhino horns and tiger bones for “medical research or in healing,” but only by certified hospitals and doctors, and only from rhinos and tigers raised in captivity, excluding zoo animals.

Still, environmentalists said the decision would likely help fuel a black market for wild rhino and tiger parts, which are revered in traditional Chinese medicine for supposed healing powers, and could lead to increased poaching of the fewer than 30,000 rhinos and 3,900 tigers still in the wild. [Continue reading…]

Humanity is ‘cutting down the tree of life’, warn scientists

The Guardian reports:

Humanity’s ongoing annihilation of wildlife is cutting down the tree of life, including the branch we are sitting on, according to a stark new analysis.

More than 300 different mammal species have been eradicated by human activities. The new research calculates the total unique evolutionary history that has been lost as a result at a startling 2.5bn years.

Furthermore, even if the destruction of wild areas, poaching and pollution were ended within 50 years and extinction rates fell back to natural levels, it would still take 5-7 million years for the natural world to recover.

Many scientists think a sixth mass extinction of life on Earth has begun, propelled by human destruction of wildlife, and 83% of wild mammals have already gone. The new work puts this in the context of the evolution and extinction of species that occurred for billions of years before modern humans arrived.

“We are doing something that will last millions of years beyond us,” said Matt Davis at Aarhus University in Denmark, who led the new research. “It shows the severity of what we are in right now. We’re entering what could be an extinction on the scale of what killed the dinosaurs.

“That is pretty scary. We are starting to cut down the whole tree [of life], including the branch we are sitting on right now.” Ecosystems around the world have already been significantly affected by the extermination of big animals such as mammoths, he said. [Continue reading…]

‘Hyperalarming’ study shows massive insect loss

The Washington Post reports:

Insects around the world are in a crisis, according to a small but growing number of long-term studies showing dramatic declines in invertebrate populations. A new report suggests that the problem is more widespread than scientists realized. Huge numbers of bugs have been lost in a pristine national forest in Puerto Rico, the study found, and the forest’s insect-eating animals have gone missing, too.

In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that, in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. In places where long-term insect data are available, mainly in Europe, insect numbers are plummeting. A study last year showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in German nature preserves.

The latest report, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that this startling loss of insect abundance extends to the Americas. The study’s authors implicate climate change in the loss of tropical invertebrates.

“This study in PNAS is a real wake-up call — a clarion call — that the phenomenon could be much, much bigger, and across many more ecosystems,” said David Wagner, an expert in invertebrate conservation at the University of Connecticut who was not involved with this research. He added: “This is one of the most disturbing articles I have ever read.” [Continue reading…]

How the loss of Native American languages affects our understanding of the natural world

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Dance is a unique way of passing on cultural stories to a younger generation.
Aaron Hawkins/Flickr.com, CC BY-ND

By Rosalyn R. LaPier, The University of Montana

Alaska has a “linguistic emergency,” according to the Alaskan Gov. Bill Walker. A report warned earlier this year that all of the state’s 20 Native American languages might cease to exist by the end of this century, if the state did not act.

American policies, particularly in the six decades between the 1870s and 1930s, suppressed Native American languages and culture. It was only after years of activism by indigenous leaders that the Native American Languages Act was passed in 1990, which allowed for the preservation and protection of indigenous languages. Nonetheless, many Native American languages have been on the verge of extinction for the past many years.

Languages carry deep cultural knowledge and insights. So, what does the loss of these languages mean in terms of our understanding of the world.

[Read more…]

Bolsonaro has made grim threats to the Amazon and its people

Climate Change News reports:

No more Paris Agreement. No more ministry of environment. A paved highway cutting through the Amazon.

Not only that. Indigenous territories opened to mining. Relaxed environmental law enforcement and licensing. International NGOs, such as Greenpeace and WWF, banned from the country. A strong alliance with the beef lobby.

In a nutshell, this is what Jair Bolsonaro, who is sailing towards Brazil’s presidency after taking a near-majority in a first round vote on Sunday, has promised for the environment.

An enthusiast for torture and the 1964-85 military dictatorship, the retired army captain is famous for racist, homophobic, authoritarian and misogynistic rhetoric. But his views on how to manage Earth’s largest tropical rainforest are just as grim and appalling. [Continue reading…]