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Melting Polar Ice Caps a "Ticking Timebomb" for Earth’s Climate System

Peter Wadhams, ScD, is professor of Ocean Physics, and Head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. He is best known for his work on sea ice. Dr. Wadhams is the president of the International Association for the Physical Sciences of the Oceans Commission on Sea Ice and Coordinator for the International Programme for Antarctic Buoys.

Dahr Jamail has written extensively about climate change as well as the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. He is a recipient of numerous awards, including the Martha Gellhorn Award for Journalism and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. He is the author of two books: Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq and The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.
A recent study by researchers at NASA and the University of California, Irvine, has found that a section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting at an alarming rate and could raise global sea levels by up to four feet. Meanwhile, the Arctic is also showing the strain of global warming, with an ice-free Arctic summer predicted by 2016, according to research by the U.S. Navy. This research comes as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that April 2014 ranked as the hottest April on record, tying with April 2010. It also follows the recent release of the National Climate Assessment that says that signs of climate change are all around us.
With us to discuss why the melting polar ice caps could spell the end not just for penguins and polar bears but for mankind are our two guests.
Dahr Jamail is a staff reporter with Truthout currently writing about the environment and climate change. His recent articles include “The Vanishing Arctic Ice Cap”.
Also joining us is Peter Wadhams, who is a professor of ocean physics and head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics at University of Cambridge.
Thank you both for joining us.
So, Peter, let’s start with the recent NASA study on the melting of the West Antarctic glaciers. What are the predictions in terms of the scope of the melting and the effects that it will have on rising sea levels?
PETER WADHAMS, PROF. OCEAN PHYSICS, UNIV. OF CAMBRIDGE: Well, it was a surprising prediction. In the past, until recently, the general assumption was that the Antarctic ice sheet is very stable. The West Antarctic ice sheet is slightly less stable than the East Antarctic ice sheet, which is the much bigger area, but the general thought was that it’s quite stable and we don’t have to worry about the Antarctic ice sheets, and for a long time, if they contain most of the fresh water in the world and if any part, major part of the Antarctic ice sheet did slide off its bed, then there would be a gigantic impact on global sea levels. And this study predicts four feet as what would happen if this large chunk of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet came off. It’s something which is clearly based on very good research. It’s something where we might expect it not to happen within the next few years.
But climate change at the moment, which is so catastrophically rapid that something that’s going to happen in a few decades, perhaps, which is very quick in terms of Antarctic glacial history, is, as far as the world is concerned, kind of slow, because by then the sea ice melt will have had much bigger impacts on global climate and will be affecting us very detrimentally. So I think the Antarctic, it’s much more serious than people ever thought, because people thought we didn’t have to worry about the Antarctic ice sheets. So it’s more serious than we thought it was going to be.
But in terms of what are the immediate threats to our continued existence on this planet, it’s probably the case that sea ice retreat is going to have its impact first, and something happening to the West Antarctic ice sheet is not something that’s going to happen in less than a few decades.
WORONCZUK: So what would a four-foot rise mean in terms of its effects on humans and the climate system?
WADHAMS: Well, even IPCC, which is a very conservative body, is now predicting something like a meter of sea level rise this century. And if you–they don’t take really enough account of the rapid melt of the Greenland ice sheet. But we would expect from Greenland ice sheet melt and general warming, which produces rise in the level of the ocean because the ocean is itself warming, we would expect, I think, more than a meter in this coming century. So what would happen if the Ice Sheet, if the Antarctic Ice Sheet slid off its bed would be a century of sea level rise in one go. And that would be pretty serious. I mean, we can compensate somewhat for a steady sea level rise by raising the heights of flood defenses and taking precautions against it or adapting to it by retreating from certain coastal urban zones, opening up more wetlands, but if it’s happening very suddenly, we can’t. You can’t adapt to something that’s happening that rapidly. So it would be a pretty serious thing if it really did happen like that.


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