TDB today: Tomorrow is being written in New Zealand’s mountains

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In a rather reflective last post for the year at The Daily Blog today — Tomorrow is being written in New Zealand’s mountains — I ruminate on the impact warming is having on New Zealand’s largest glacier. All pictures were taken last Sunday, from a little yellow boat bobbing on the growing terminal lake. A visit to Aoraki Mt Cook to see the glaciers is something everyone should do. It’s climate change writ large, and happening on our doorstep.

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Easterbrook’s wrong (again)

Over the holiday period I’ve had a number of people point me at the latest “essay” by Don “Cooling-gate” Easterbrook — it was featured in full at µWatts, translated into German and Dutch, and made headline material for Morano: Geologist: 9,099 Of Last 10,500 Years Warmer Than 2010. I was a little surprised. I thought that recent temperatures were the warmest for at least hundreds, and probably thousands of years. But this is Easterbrook, and he’s up to his old tricks. He’s “hiding the incline” in temperatures by mangling the data from Greenland ice cores. Has he learned nothing since I last looked at his “work”? Apparently not.

Easterbrook’s argument is so flimsy and his presentation of data so dodgy that even the normally uncritical crowd at µWatts voiced grave doubts about his analysis. But there were a number of loose ends left over from my last look at Greenland ice core data, and so I took the opportunity to do a little more research. Playing fast and loose with the facts, and making schoolboy errors in the process, is not a good look for a professor emeritus. But that’s what Easterbrook’s been doing…

Continue reading “Easterbrook’s wrong (again)”

Clear and present danger: Lonnie Thompson on the message in the ice

Paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor in the School of Earth Sciences at The Ohio State University, is well known and widely respected for his decades of work on ice caps and glaciers, especially in tropical and sub-tropical regions. In the past Thompson has let his research data and conclusions speak for him but he has this week caused something of a stir by voicing in a journal for social scientists and behaviour experts his concern at the grave risks we run in ignoring the evidence of climate change. Climate Change: The Evidence and Our Options is the title of his paper (available here) and it’s published in a special climate-change edition of The Behavior Analyst.

One hopes the paper has many readers. Its eighteen pages, a model of clarity, are highly accessible for the lay person.

Thompson opens by acknowledging that climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group.

“We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees.”

Why then, he asks, are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? Because virtually all of them are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilisation.

“There’s a clear pattern in the scientific evidence documenting that the earth is warming, that warming is due largely to human activity, that warming is causing important changes in climate, and that rapid and potentially catastrophic changes in the near future are very possible. This pattern emerges not, as is so often suggested, simply from computer simulations, but from the weight and balance of the empirical evidence as well.”

He explains the evidence from diverse data sources that points to relative stability in temperatures over the past 1000 years until the late twentieth century. Acknowledging that regional, seasonal and altitudinal variability can nevertheless make it difficult to convince the public and even scientists in other fields that global warming is occurring, he adds from his own area of expertise the evidence of melting ice.

The retreat of mountain glaciers is an early warning of climate change. He details the ice fields on the highest crater of Kilimanjaro which have lost 85% of their coverage since 1812. The Quelccaya ice cap in Peru, the largest tropical ice field on Earth, has lost 25% of its cover since 1978. Ice fields in the Himalayas that have long shown traces of the radioactive bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s have since lost that signal as surface melting has removed the upper layers and thereby reduced the thickness of these glaciers. All of the glaciers in Alaska’s vast Brooks Range are retreating, as are 98 percent of those in southeastern Alaska.  And 99 percent of glaciers in the Alps, 100 percent of those in Peru and 92 percent in the Andes of Chile are likewise retreating. Some telling photographic sequences illustrate the findings. It’s a pattern repeated around the world. To glacier retreat Thompson adds the loss of polar ice and sees global warming as the only plausible explanation.

From there he moves to consideration of the natural forcers of climate change and the consensus among climatologists that the warming trend we have been experiencing for the past 100 years or so cannot be accounted for by any of the known natural forcers.

“The evidence is overwhelming that human activity is responsible for the rise in CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gas levels, and that the increase in these gases is fueling the rise in mean global temperature.”

The effects include sea level rise. He points out that if the Earth were to lose just 8% of its ice, the consequences for some coastal regions would be dramatic. The lower part of the Florida peninsula and much of Louisiana, including New Orleans, would be submerged, and low-lying cities, including London, New York, and Shanghai, would be endangered. Low-lying continental countries such as the Netherlands and Bangladesh are already battling flooding as never before and several small island states are facing imminent destruction. Other effects of warming Thompson touches on include the threats to glacier-fed fresh water sources on which populations in parts of the world depend and the increase in arid regions as the Hadley Cell expands.

Many of the models predicting future rises in temperature assume a linear rise in temperature. But in fact the rate of global temperature rise is accelerating, which is reflected in increases in the rate of ice melt, and in turn an increase in the rate of sea level rise.

“This [acceleration] means that our future may not be a steady, gradual change in the world’s climate, but an abrupt and devastating deterioration from which we cannot recover.”

At this point he discusses positive feedbacks, instancing forest fires, more dark areas opened through ice melt, and the release of CO2 and methane from melting tundra permafrost. He explains the possibility of tipping points as a result, with their ominous implications. But tipping points apart, if, as predicted, global temperature rises by another 3 degrees by the end of the century, the earth will be warmer than it has been in about 3 million years. Oceans were then about 25 metres higher than they are today.

What are our options for dealing with the crisis?  Not prevention, for global warming is already with us. We are left with three: mitigate, adapt, suffer. Mitigation is the best option, but so far the US and other large emitters have done little more than talk about its importance. Many Americans don’t even accept the reality of global warming. Disinformation campaigns have been amazingly successful. Unless appropriate steps are taken we will be left with only adaptation and suffering. And the longer the delay the more unpleasant the adaptation and the greater the suffering will be. Those with the fewest resources for adaptation will suffer most.

It’s a grim picture. The information is not new.  But it gains impetus when a leading scientist steps into the public arena and weaves his specialist contribution into the overall account in a way which leaves the reader with absolutely no doubt that the writer is convinced by the science and deeply alarmed at what it means for humanity. Like John Veron, whom I wrote about earlier this week, Thompson doesn’t allow scientific reticence to mute his message.

“Sooner or later, we will all deal with global warming. The only question is how much we will mitigate, adapt, and suffer.”

NZ glaciers holding their own (just)


New Zealand’s glaciers just about held their own over last summer, showing a very slight gain in mass on average according to NIWA’s annual end of summer snowline survey, released today. The Park Pass glacier (above) in the Mt Aspiring National Park between the Hollyford Valley and the head of Lake Wakatipu (map) is one of the 50 index glaciers in the NIWA survey. From the press release:

“A moderate El Niño developed in the tropical Pacific in spring last year. This brought more southwesterlies, with normal to below normal temperatures through last summer and into autumn this year. The overall effect was to hold snowlines in a near steady state this year,” says [NIWA scientist] Dr Hendrikx. The previous two years (2007–08 and 2008–09) had seen end-of-summer snowlines rise significantly as not enough snow fell to compensate for melting.

The impact of the El Niño shows as a (very) small uptick at the end of the ice mass graph, but the overall trend remains strongly downwards.


The full report (with lots of pictures from the aerial survey) can be downloaded from the NIWA web site. The Park Pass photo above was taken on March 6th this year on the fourth leg of NIWA’s alpine flight, and shows some spectacular icebergs in the proglacial lake. The extent of the glacier’s retreat can be seen in the Google Earth imagery at Mauri Pelto’s From A Glacier’s Perspective blog post on the nearby Donne Glacier. With a strong La Niña now influencing weather patterns in NZ, it’ll be interesting to see how the glaciers fare. I wonder if I can blag a seat on the 2011 flight? ;-)

Tropical ice land: climate change hits Peruvians

It may not be strictly scientific, but anthropological observation like this is invaluable because in the end, people’s interpretation of the events they see around them count as much as or more than any peer-reviewed paper.” Guardian journalist John  Vidal has been with other writers on an Oxfam-guided tour of Peru and Ecuador  to see on the ground how changing weather is affecting human development in the Andes. He’s been blogging as he goes. No doubt there will be longer and more carefully constructed articles to follow, but these reminders that already people are suffering the effects of climate change, often severely, are worth immediate attention. I agree entirely with the quote from Vidal which opens this post, and last year welcomed a number of Oxfam reports which recounted many human stories from frontiers of climate change in Bolivia, Nepal, the Pacific Islands, and elsewhere.


Vidal reports meeting Julio Hanneco, “possibly the world’s greatest potato grower”. He grows 215 varieties of potatoes in the high Andean region of Peru.

“…folk like Julio and their extraordinary diversity of crops are critically endangered by the massive changes they observe taking place in the High Andes. When Julio was a boy, (he’s now in his 50s) a glacier was just two minutes walk from his door. Now it is a nine-hour hike away.”

In Julio’s own words:

“The seasons used to be very clear, we knew when to plant. Now we have less water. We used to get the water from the glacier. Now we have twice as many mosquitoes. We have no light from the glacier. I don’t understand what is going on. We feel very disoriented. I think that I will have no water and that will be the end of the world for us.”

Peru has more than 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. Vidal reports most in rapid retreat, leaving behind devastated farmers and communities short of water.

In another blog post Vidal reports massive protest in the Espinar region. The Apurimac river “is about to be hijacked”. The Peruvian government has signed a memorandum of agreement with the neighbouring province of Arequipa, to build a giant reservoir from where the water would be used to provide hydroelectric power and irrigation. But it will not benefit the people of Espinar who stand to actually lose the little water they have. The benefit will be exported to rich farmers growing food for export on the Pacific coast.

Vidal’s group found a massive strike under way in the city of Yauri. They spoke with the leader who described it as a climate change strike.

“They are condemning us to a slow death. In the future we know we will have less water. We cannot trust the rainy season any more. Every year the water levels are diminishing. Climate change and global warming indicate in the next years we will have even less. You don’t need to be clever to see climate change is affecting everything here.”

Out in the villages in the hills, whose inhabitants expressed solidarity with the striking townsfolk, the story was the same.

“Here we had snow and ice on all the hills. We don’t any more. All these lands had water but no more. Our grandparents lived very differently to us. It used to rain from October to April, and May, June and July were frosty. We used to use the snow melt water. Now we have nothing. Before we could have 300 to 400 sheep and llamas; now we have 20 to 30 and no more.”

Oxfam and a local NGO partner are working to demonstrate adaptation measures to cope better with the semi-permanent drought which now afflicts the region. There are grounds for hope that these will be effective.  But civil unrest is rife, with numerous ongoing conflicts over water.

Vidal asks “Is this the future everywhere? Have the climate wars begun?”

[Fiery Furnaces]