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The Story behind Greenland's Record Ice Loss

Climate

Climate Central

By Andrew Freedman

The news that an unusually widespread melt occurred in Greenland during mid-July, when 97 percent of the Greenland ice sheet—including normally frigid high-elevation areas—experienced some degree of melting, has made international headlines, and for good reason. Such a widespread melt event has not occurred there since at least 1889, and may be yet another sign of the consequences of manmade climate change.  

But what does this event mean in the bigger picture of ice melt and sea level rise, and what led to it in the first place?

Extent of surface melt over Greenland’s ice sheet on July 8 (left) and July 12 (right). Measurements from three satellites showed that on July 8, about 40 percent of the ice sheet had undergone thawing at or near the surface. In just a few days, the melting had dramatically accelerated and an estimated 97 percent of the ice sheet surface had thawed by July 12. Credit: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory

The widespread melt so far this season, while dramatic and worrisome to many climate scientists, does not necessarily mean that Greenland is headed for a far faster and more significant melt than scientists already anticipate. The current projections for sea level rise related to the melting of Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets is scary enough, with the likelihood that it will raise global sea levels by about 2 to 6 feet by 2100.

Greenland is the world's largest island, and it holds 680,000 cubic miles of ice. If all of this ice were to melt—and that won't happen anytime soon—the oceans would rise by more than 20 feet. 

William Colgan, a research associate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, said the July melt event is extremely rare, but not completely unheard of. He said an analysis of ice core records from Greenland Summit station, which at 2 miles above sea level is near the highest point on the ice sheet, shows that the high elevation areas of Greenland have experienced melt about once every 150 years during the past 10,000 years. However, such a widespread melt event is unprecedented in the observational record, which dates back to about 1930.

In this chart you can see that a very strong area of high pressure (in red shading surrounding Greenland) set up shop over Greenland during July, providing warmer than average air temperatures and clear skies to enhance surface melting. Credit: NOAA via Joe Witte.

NASA detected the melt event using observations from three different satellites, and the satellite record extends back by about three decades. The satellites have never caught anything like this either, not even for a very short time period.

“In terms of the importance and significance of an entire ice sheet melt event: Obviously it gets you thinking the future of the Greenland Ice Sheet,” Colgan said in an email conversation. “But since we are looking at a record event, rather than a trend, it is not really possible to directly translate this into a projection of future ice sheet behavior.” 

Greenland's ice has been melting faster than many scientists expected just a decade ago, spurred by warming sea and land temperatures, changing weather patterns and other factors. Recent findings that were first reported by Climate Central, showed that the reflectivity of the Greenland ice sheet, particularly the high elevations that were involved in the mid-July melt event, have declined to record lows. This is an indication that the ice sheet has been absorbing more incoming solar energy than normal, potentially leading to another record melt year—just two years after the 2010 record melt season. The low reflectivity may have been a harbinger of the unusually widespread melt event.

Jason Box, a researcher with Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center who has been following the low reflectivity trends, wrote on his blog that he projects a 100 percent melt area in Greenland "within another similar decade of warming," noting that this "may be coming true already."

Colgan said recent Greenland ice loss trends are a part of the ice sheet's response to the warming climate.

“Perhaps all we can say is that the frequency with which Greenland record melt years are being established is exceptional. It clearly demonstrates that the Arctic climate is no longer in steady-state, whereby climate oscillates around some mean state and extreme events are relatively rare, but rather that Arctic climate is in a highly transient state, whereby progressively more extreme events are exceeded as climate trends in a given direction,” Colgan said.

According to Colgan, the historical widespread melt events involving the ice at high elevations were largely the result of natural variability from solar cycles, but July's event might have been the result of manmade climate change, which is warming the Arctic at about twice the rate of the rest of the globe.

“I think it is clear that entire ice sheet melt events are now increasing in frequency as a result of anthropogenic [manmade] climate change, rather than natural variability in solar insolation,” he said.  

Sea surface temperature departures from average on July 18. Credit: Center for Ocean and Ice.

As for what led to this unusual event, it was set off by unusually mild weather conditions that have occurred more frequently in that region during recent summers. According to NASA, a series of High Pressure centers, or “ridges” in the upper atmosphere, have set up over Greenland since May, NASA said, pumping mild air into the area and resulting in less cloudiness than average. The ridge, or “heat dome,” is similar to the weather patterns that have caused record heat in much of the U.S. this summer.

“This latest heat dome started to move over Greenland on July 8, and then parked itself over the ice sheet about three days later. By July 16, it had begun to dissipate,” NASA reported. At the Summit station, the high temperature on July 11 was 36°F, which was warm enough to thaw snow and ice at that high altitude.

Sea surface temperatures have also been running much above average along the western coast of Greenland, which likely contributed to the loss of a massive chunk of ice from the Petermann Glacier in mid-July.

The melt event comes during a summer season that also saw a rare event occur off of the ice sheet. In Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, which is a key transport and logistics hub for scientific expeditions studying the Greenland ice sheet, meltwater runoff turned a small river into raging rapids, and wiped out a bridge that had stood for at least 60 years.

Visit EcoWatch's CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.

 

 

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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By Jake Johnson

Unity Task Forces formed by presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders unveiled sweeping party platform recommendations Wednesday that—while falling short of progressive ambitions in a number of areas, from climate to healthcare—were applauded as important steps toward a bold and just policy agenda that matches the severity of the moment.

"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.