Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent

Science journalist Gabrielle Walker’s book Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (Bloomsbury, 2012) tells an absorbing story of the wide variety of scientific work undertaken in Antarctica and the support services that maintain it. It also attempts to capture the human fascination of the continent, not least for the author herself in her five sojourns there. She provides close-up observations of some of the specialist teams working on an array of investigations: penguins, seals, under-ice sea creatures, meteorites, astronomy, paleoclimatology, the dynamics of ice movement and loss, and more. Stories of the early explorers find a place, and the psychology which motivates people to undertake sometimes long scientific enterprises in such a demanding environment.   Her book is striking and highly readable, often gripping.

It’s the climate change aspects of the book that I want to highlight here. Walker, who has a strong academic science background, specialises in energy and climate change. She co-authored a book on climate change with Sir David King a few years ago. I reviewed it at the time. Her knowledgeable familiarity with the subject is often in evidence in Antarctica.

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Thin Ice: what polar science is telling us about climate

This guest post is by professor Peter Barrett, executive producer, and Suze Keith, marketing advisor for Thin Ice.

Scientists can tell human stories about climate change, and a group of us have been working on just that for the last few years. We’ve produced a film — Thin Ice – the inside story of climate change — which follows a scientist, geologist and camera buff Simon Lamb, who is concerned at the flak his climate science colleagues have been taking.

Simon travels from the Antarctic to the Arctic. He listens to scientists talk about their work, hopes and fears, and discovers how the astonishing range of research really does fit together. By the end there are just two messages – that our ultimate goal should be zero carbon emissions (in line with the latest IPCC report), and that science really does work. As paleoclimatologist Dave Harwood says to young people at the end of the film:

Don’t be scared by this thing. Come and join in our effort. Be the best scientists and engineers you can, and we’ll deal with it.

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Antarctica’s melting, seas will rise: here’s why

How is Antarctica melting? Much faster than we hoped, according to the latest research — neatly explained in the latest Peter Sinclair This Is Not Cool video for Yale Climate Connections (formerly the Yale Forum), cunningly titled Meltwater Pulse 2b. Just how fast the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, and how much East Antarctica will contribute to near term sea level rise is open an open question, but the news is not good, as the latest research on the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet at the end of the last ice age suggests.

PIG and pals pass point of no return – West Antarctic ice melt inevitable

Two new papers published this week suggest that the West Antarctic glaciers draining into the Amundsen Sea — the Pine Island, Thwaites, Haynes, Pope, Smith and Kohler glaciers — are melting rapidly and are now committed to collapse, adding up to 1.2 metres to future sea level rise. In the NASA JPL video above, Eric Rignot, lead author of a paper1 examining how the glaciers’ “grounding lines” — the point where the bottom of the glacial ice leaves the bedrock and starts to float — have retreated very significantly over the last 20 years explains how they are now melting back unstoppably. Another paper modelling ice loss from the Thwaites glacier 2 finds that it is committed to retreat and collapse via the same mechanism. Lead author Ian Joughin of the University of Washington, told Science magazine:

The next stable state for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might be no ice sheet at all…

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  1. E. Rignot, J. Mouginot, M. Morlighem, H. Seroussi, B. Scheuchl. Widespread, rapid grounding line retreat of Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith and Kohler glaciers, West Antarctica from 1992 to 2011. Geophysical Research Letters, 2014; DOI: 10.1002/2014GL060140 []
  2. Ian Joughin, Benjamin E. Smith, Brooke Medley. Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Underway for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica, Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1249055. []

Polar projections

Arctic vir 2012147

This stunning view of the Arctic and the northern hemisphere was captured by the Suomi-NPP satellite a couple of weeks ago. You can clearly see where the Arctic sea ice is beginning to melt and break up (the bluish bits of offshore ice). More on the image at the Earth Observatory. Meanwhile, new research indicates that extreme Arctic warming and the break-up of the West Antarctic ice sheet may be closely linked, according to evidence from an amazing lakebed core from Russia’s Lake El’gygytgyn1. From the Science Daily report:

Brigham-Grette, the lead U.S. scientist says, “What we see is astonishing. We had no idea that we’d find this. It’s astonishing to see so many intervals when the Arctic was really warm, enough so forests were growing where today we see tundra and permafrost. And the intensity of warming is completely unexpected. The other astounding thing is that we were able to determine that during many times when the West Antarctic ice sheet disappeared, we see a corresponding warm period following very quickly in the Arctic. Arctic warm periods cluster with periods when the Western Antarctic ice sheet is gone.”

Not good news.

  1. I’m glad The Climate Show is on sabbatical and I don’t have to attempt to pronounce that… []