Greenland's Coastal Glaciers in Terminal Decline
By Tim Radford
By the century's end, some of Greenland's ice will have vanished forever.
New research shows that the coastal glaciers and ice caps are melting faster than ever before and may have already reached the point of no return two decades ago. That is because they have passed the stage at which they can refreeze their own meltwater.
These peripheral glaciers and icecaps cover an estimated 100,000 square kilometers of the island. And when they have gone, the world's oceans will have risen by four centimeters.
Body of Greenland ice
But scientists reporting in Nature Communications journal said most of the Greenland ice—the biggest body of ice in the northern hemisphere—is still safe. Were all of its ice to melt, sea levels would rise by at least seven meters.
"Higher altitudes are colder, so the highest ice caps are still relatively healthy at the moment," said study leader Brice Noël, a PhD student of polar glaciology and Arctic climate modeling at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands.
"However, we see melting occur higher and higher. That's a big problem, because that 'melting line' is moving towards the altitude where most of the ice mass is.
"The main ice sheet in the interior of Greenland is much more elevated and isn't doing too bad yet. But we can already see an increase in the altitude of the 'melting line' there as well."
The coastal research concentrated on the mechanics of ice loss. Normally, glaciers and ice caps grow because summer meltwater drains through into the deeper frozen snow and freezes again. The icecap retains its mass and even increases.
But 20 years ago, the firn, or older snow, became saturated, freezing right through, and more summer meltwater now runs to the sea. The rate of increase varies from 17 to 74 percent and the icecaps each year are losing three times the mass loss measured in 1997.
Concern about Greenland ice and glaciers being in retreat is not new. In fact, glaciers in both hemispheres are observed to be in retreat, and the Geological Society of America has just published telltale imagery and an analysis based on observations of more than 5,200 glaciers in 19 regions around the world, showing that the loss of ice mass this century is without precedent.
So Greenland's glaciers are just part of a bigger picture. But since Greenland is home to the second largest volume of ice on the planet, what happens there concerns the entire world.
Testimony to climate change
Researchers observed years ago that the rivers of Greenland ice are in spate and rates of melting are thought likely to accelerate. The latest report is another piece of testimony to climate change in the far north.
"These peripheral glaciers and ice caps can be thought of as colonies of ice that are in rapid decline, many of which will likely disappear in the near future," said Ian Howat, a glaciologist at Ohio State University in the U.S. and a co-author of the report.
"In that sense, you could say that they're 'doomed.' However, the ice sheet itself is still not 'doomed' in the same way. The vast interior ice sheet is more climatologically isolated than the surrounding glaciers and ice caps.
"Also, since this 'tipping point' was reached in the late 1990s before warming really took off, it indicates that these peripheral glaciers are very sensitive and, potentially, ephemeral relative to the timescales of response of the ice sheet."
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.