Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. ThomsonReuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.
Welcome to the front lines of global warming in the United States – the Harding Ice Field in Alaska, the biggest icefield in the United States.
At the Exit Glacier north of Seward – the only glacier in the Kenai Fjords National Park reachable by foot – the giant cerulean blue ice sheet gives every sign of staying put.
But one only has to glance at the many signs along the roadway and footpath to the glacier’s edge to mark its retreat – it hit its peak size in 1815 and has been receding ever since. Signs along a footpath leading to the base of the glacier show just how far it has retreated.
The glacier lost about 10 feet from its front face over the summer of 2008.
Since the 1980s, land-based glaciers and ice caps like this one in Alaska have contributed the most to sea level rise than any other source within their category, which includes other land-based glaciers like Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro and the Chacaltaya Glacier near La Paz, Bolivia, said Brenda Ekwurzel, a climate expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Unlike the ice cover around the North Pole or giant floating ice sheets, land-based ice contributes directly to sea-level rises.
According to a 2007 report by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, glaciers and ice caps have the potential to raise global sea levels by between .15 meters and .37 meters.
That pales in comparison to the giant ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, which could raise sea levels by 63.9 meters if they fully melted.
At the Aialik Glacier in the Harding Icefield – reachable by boat or plane, the living nature of the ice was more evident.
On a visit to the glacier via tourboat on Aug. 15 on a trip hosted by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, several chunks of ice broke apart and crashed into Aialik Bay.
Throughout the visit, the ice cracked andgroaned, with a sound like thunder claps that punctuated the still air.
Talk about occupational hazards.Five Wildlife Conservation Society scientists studying the effects of global warming on shorebirds in Arctic Alaska had to be airlifted away from their remote camp late last month because of the appearance of another species whose life is changing as warming helps erode shores and melt sea ice. The researchers said a polar bear stuck on land forced them to evacuate their camp north of the remote Teshekpuk Lake on the Beaufort Sea –leaving food and tents behind. The carnivorous bears would normally be out on sea ice this time of year. But with recent warming the ice is miles from shore and polar bears, which were recently listed as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, are becoming increasingly trapped on land well away from their usual seal prey, said Dr. Steve Zack, who leads Arctic studies for WCS ”We had no idea how hungry they’d be and thus how ornery they’d be,” Zack, who made the decision for the researchers to evacuate even though they had been trained in bear safety, told me by his mobile phone from his current base near Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. ”Where there’s one polar bear there are usually more,” he said, adding that government scientists have seen 32 polar bears stuck on shore this year, up from only one or two in previous years. In subsequent fly-overs over the abandoned camp, the team discovered that bears had eaten all of the food left by the researchers and destroyed two $500 tents. ”It was an ironic circumstance that studying climate change issues for our shorebirds put us in harm’s way with climate change effects on polar bears,” said Zack. Image by Mark Maftei, WCS
It may be a distinct miniority opinion, but if you were to ask me, I’d say I think they’re not high enough — and I sincerely hope they keep rising. It may be the only way the world wakes up to the perils of climate change — hitting people in their pocketbooks where it hurts most.
The higher energy costs are truly a blessing in disguise for anyone concerned about climate change and worried about the inability of world leaders to take any tough measures to meaningfully reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With the growing scientific evidence that global warming has been happening, there’s no excuse for this generation’s inaction.
A study by scientists in Texas reckons that cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and other farm animals excrete enough waste to generate electricity for millions of homes, helping reduce reliance on coal-fired power plants and so cut greenhouse gas emissions released by burning fossil fuels.