Man Swims Under East Antarctic Glacier to Highlight Impacts of the Climate Crisis
- Endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh has completed a 1 kilometer swim under the East Antarctic ice shelf.
- The feat was part of his campaign to secure a series of protected zones in the seas around the continent.
- He chose the 200th anniversary of the discovery of Antarctica to make his epic swim.
It's been 200 years since Russian explorer Admiral Bellingshausen discovered Antarctica. It's a frozen wilderness, and the East of the continent is the coldest place on Earth — but scientists say they are starting to see signs of ice loss even there.
Braving freezing waters and a windchill factor of -15 C, he explored a river running through an ice tunnel formed as a result of the glacier melting.
And the experience was eye-opening. "Antarctica is melting," he says. "Everywhere I looked, there was water rushing off the ice sheet, carving long ravines deep into the ice sheet, or pooling into supraglacial lakes."
"This place needs protecting," he adds. "It needs protecting because all our futures depend on it."
‘The Polar Bear’
Pugh is the only person to have undertaken long-distance swims in all the world's oceans. At 50, he's a veteran of many icy adventures, including swimming over the North Pole during a brief break in the sea ice, and crossing a lake that formed on a glacier on Mount Everest.
His ability to withstand extreme cold has earned him the nickname of "The Polar Bear."
Pugh's East Antarctic swim is part of his campaign to secure a series of Marine Protected Areas around the continent. Antarctica already has one of these zones, in the Ross Sea, but Pugh wants all the seas around the continent to be designated protection areas in order to stem the effects of climate change.
He has already visited Moscow to mark the anniversary of Admiral Bellinghausen's momentous discovery. And he plans to head to Beijing, London and Washington to persuade world leaders to increase protection for Antarctica.
Warning to the World
Since the early 1900s, glaciers around the world have been melting fast, as temperatures have risen due to global warming.
This melting causes sea levels to rise, which increases coastal erosion and creates more frequent and intense extreme weather events. Together, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are the largest contributors to global sea level rises.
The East Antarctic, with ice sheets formed over millions of years and several kilometers thick in places, has long been considered the most stable part of the continent.
But researchers say that is changing, with glaciers starting to move more quickly, which could indicate widespread shifts in the region.
"What is very clear to us from the science is that we now need to create a network of marine protected areas around Antarctica," says Pugh. "It's an amazing place."
The World Economic Forum's Net Zero Challenge was launched during this year's Annual Meeting in Davos, challenging nations and corporations to do more to achieve the targets set out in the 2015 Paris agreement.
Reposted with permission from World Economic Forum.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
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