Sightings from the Treehouse: Elements of Climate Change – Ice and Permafrost Loss

Sightings from the Treehouse is an investigative blog series on climate change and the environment, from GIPL’s Power Wise Director, Bob Donaghue. You can read the firstsecond, and third blogs here. 


The most significant impacts of global warming are found in the polar regions, since temperatures are twice as high there compared to the global average temperature. Increasing ice and permafrost melt threaten our globe in a variety of ways. I hope you will read the previous blog on rising temperatures since it forms the basis of our further exploration. It is quite simple: temperatures increase, ice melts and sea levels rise.  The evidence is clear that global temperatures are rising and new records seem to be set each year. What is that doing in our polar areas, the earth’s natural air conditioner?
Ice Melt
Global temperatures have increased about 1.9 degrees F since pre-industrial times, but have doubled in the Arctic during the same period due to a phenomenon called Arctic amplification. In 2016, Arctic temperatures were 6.3 degrees F above 1900s levels. This increased heating due to amplification is leading to tremendous loss of Arctic ice, both glacial and sea ice. This is particularly evident during the summer. The rate of Arctic ice melt is about 13% per decade.  
The albedo effect is when white ice reflects the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere serving to cool the planet, but as ocean ice melts, the dark open water absorbs the sun’s heat and adds to the increased temperatures and thus sea level rise – a positive feedback. Note that “positive” does not mean good but that it simply amplifies rather than dampens (negative feedback) the force of the change. In this case, and with permafrost below, this is bad and could be catastrophic.

According to a 2017 NOAA assessment, sea level rise from 1880 through today is about 8-9 inches with 3 inches occurring since 1993. They estimate the range in sea level rise from glacial melt and ocean heating to be from 1 to 8 feet by 2100 depending on the success of emission reductions. Based on evolving evidence of ice melt in Antarctica, the higher levels and beyond are very plausible.  NOAA cites that up to 6 million people in the US will be displaced at about 6 feet sea level rise.  
Permafrost Loss
Another concerning result of the rapidly warming Arctic is the thawing of historically frozen rock and soil called permafrost. Soil is much more than finely ground rock, containing significant amounts of organic matter that slowly decomposes (rots). Methane is a gas that comes from this decomposition and is the major ingredient in the natural gas we burn in our homes and businesses.  When released to the atmosphere unburnt, it is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, 21 to 27 times as powerful depending on the source. When thawed, this methane gas bubbles to the surface and is released into the air adding to the heat trapping ability of the atmosphere – another potentially dangerous positive feedback loop. As the Arctic warms, it thaws more permafrost on the land and methane hydrates from the ocean floor, releasing additional methane that traps more heat in the atmosphere causing temperatures to rise even further.  

While permafrost may have only been frozen solid for a few years, some has been frozen for millennia. When thawed, soils can rapidly shift or slump potentially damaging roads, building and pipelines. Particularly with ancient permafrost, thawing can release organisms and gases trapped in the ice for millennia. For example, an outbreak of anthrax in the Yamal Peninsula is believed to be due to thawing permafrost.  
North Atlantic Conveyer Belt
Ice melt and ocean heating may also lead to a slowdown of the North Atlantic conveyer belt, which helps regulate global climate. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) brings warm weather to northern Europe. Its disruption will result in a much colder Europe. In addition, AMOC is linked to circulation in the world’s oceans. The IPPC estimates that the conveyer could slow down as much as 50 percent by 2100 if temperatures rise to 7.2 degrees F. Recall 2016 Arctic temperatures were 6.3 degrees F above pre-industrial levels!
Dr. James Hansen, former NASA head of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies and currently director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions at Columbia University, cautioned in September 2016 that new evidence  found ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica is happening at a rate 10 times faster than previous estimates.  This could lead to a multi-meter sea level rise over 50 to 150 years. Hansen adds the new freshwater melt is slowing the AMOC which likely is irreversible in human time. If a shutdown happens, “All hell will break loose from ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms,” according to Hansen.

As a result of Hansen’s research, NASA has launched an urgent, $30 million 5-year initiative called Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG). NASA is using specially adapted aircraft to annually measure glacier thinning, and dropping salinity and temperature probes into the ocean to gather data to gauge Hansen’s conclusions. Josh Willis, Chief Investigator for OMG indicates they have found that deep seawater adjacent to Greenland is  7.2 degree F  warmer than the surface and is melting Greenland’s glaciers from the bottom.
Not surprisingly, the current administration is proposing to cut many NASA climate change programs. They have said they want to turn off the satellites measuring climate change and focus NASA’s programs only on outer space.  You know – Forget Creation!
These are very troubling occurrences, and it is time for clergy to delve deeply into their sacred books to identify their faith’s moral guideposts that society should know and practice to sustain the earth as the Creator intended. The sacred books have been the source of guidance and comfort for many during earlier troubled times. To address this evolving global crisis, our religious institutions must prepare a new generation of clergy that will not forget Creation.