Ben & Jerry’s is an ice cream company. One of the key parts of our job is making sure things stay frozen, and we like to think we do a pretty good job with that. Unfortunately, we as a species haven’t made it easy for the planet to keep its own poles frozen. The results are dramatic and have the potential to cause overwhelming rise in sea levels in the near and far future.
The amount of sea ice covering our poles has been in decline for close to 40 years now. As of 2014, the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica combined were thinning at a rate of 500 cubic kilometers a year— the fastest melt rate in the past 20 years. Greenland is losing ice twice as fast as in 2009, and Antarctica three times as fast as that year. Not surprisingly, the warmest temperatures ever were just recorded in Antarctica this March.
Antarctica holds nearly 90% of the world’s ice, and the continent dropped a staggering 160 billion tons of ice per year from 2010 to 2013. Just last year, a large section of the West Antarctica ice sheet began falling apart , which is a dramatic shift that could lead to further destabilization and, scientists say, a net sea level rise of 10 feet or more in the coming centuries.
Clocking in at (only!) 3 times the size of Texas, Greenland is definitely the smaller of the two ice sheets. Still, with 10% of the world’s ice tied up here, the implications of it all melting would lead to sea levels rising around 23 feet. Meanwhile, some scientists are pointing to these latest findings as evidence of a possibly unstoppable, if extremely slow, break up of the West Antarctic ice sheet.
The Snowball Effect
What’s at work here is a series of feedback loops, spurred on by the rise in temperatures caused by climate change. A lack of summer ice equals less white surface to reflect sunlight. This exposes the darker oceans beneath the ice which collect and trap the sun’s warmth, accelerating the melting cycle. In Antarctica, the collapse of one ice shelf undermines the stability of the next ice shelf, leading to further collapse. In Greenland, rising temperatures are encouraging more of what are called “supraglacial” lakes to appear in the summer time, further destabilizing the ice sheet and absorbing more warmth from the sun than would be reflected by snow and ice.
Pole to pole, this is clear evidence of the impact of global warming on a scale that will affect the whole world. With the stakes so high, scientists are frenzied to document, explain and predict what’s going on— meaning we’ll being seeing even more headlines about the Arctic in years to come.
While a melting Antarctica is hard to gauge, and will likely have an impact hundreds of years from now, we’ll see the impact of Greenland’s melting within the next century. Already, global organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are working to calculate the effects of all the melting ice on rising sea levels. Conservative estimates show 150 million people in port cities and $35 trillion worth of property around the world at risk from coastal flooding by 2070, while waterfront cities are inundated with the challenges of adaptation.
Melting ice seems pretty far off for most of the world, but that is the critical problem with a crisis that doesn’t seem apparent until it’s in your own backyard. Understanding the ice is about owning up to the results of climate change, and facing the fact that every year that we don’t reduce our current level of carbon emissions, the negative effects will multiply. And at some point, it may be too late.
Let’s make sure we get our world leaders to take real action before we run out of time. Keep the pressure on our leaders to take a stand this year at the UN Climate Summit in Paris, because “If it’s melted, it’s ruined,” has never been more true.