Melting of polar ice caps and global warming

  03-Oct-2020 16:10:24

Global warming climate change polar ice caps

David Attenborough, stated in the Our Planet documentary, ‘The polar regions of our planet may seem beyond the reaches for most of us, but they are not beyond our influence.’ This statement is undeniably accurate in modern times, with a massive population inhabiting the Earth, pushing the climate crisis and global warming to a point of no return.

The Earth is warming at unprecedented levels with record-breaking temperatures , which in turn causes natural calamities to occur. A statistic indicating the annual loss of ice from polar regions shows that 81 billion tonnes of ice were lost in the 1990s. Between 1992-2017, 6.4 trillion tonnes of ice was lost. In the year 2010 alone, 475 billion tonnes of ice were lost to oceans, and in 2019, the Greenland ice sheets recorded alarming rates of 1 million tonnes of ice sheets lost per minute. The Arctic June snow cover extent on land ice, between the years 1967-2018 declined approximately 2.5 million km2. This effect was due to the increase in temperature of surface air.

The Solheim glacier in Iceland, Store glacier in Greenland, and the Yukon Territory in northwest Canada are regions of study for calving. Calving is a process where a glacier breaks off gigantic chunks of ice into the ocean. The rate of calving happening in Greenland has drastically increased, contributing to the rise in sea levels. Decades worth of atmospheric balancing and temperature regulation that occur during natural changes in the environment without excess pollution contribution has deteriorated drastically over the past two decades alone (2000-2020) because of rapid global industrial changes . To understand the poles and how they function, we must start at the beginning- the composition.

The frozen component of the Earth system is called the Cryosphere . It entails ice, snow, and other solid states of water. This ecosystem is found in the two poles of the Earth; predominantly Greenland, the Arctic region and surrounding ice lands in the North, and the Antarctic continent in the South. 4 million people live in the Arctic zone and 10% of them are indigenous. The Cryosphere is also home to numerous species, all of which are equally important for maintaining ecological equilibrium. Glaciers and snow are known to record both natural and anthropogenic (of human origin) atmospheric emission. The way it works is, these ice sheets, such as those of Greenland and the Antarctic, have layers and rings similar to those of trees, which preserve climate records and dictate decades of changes in the environment.

The largest-ever study that took place in Norilsk in the Russian Arctic, tree rings showed direct and indirect effects of industrial pollution in the region and beyond, devastating local environments and the global carbon cycle. Changes in the Arctic sea ice has the potential to influence mid-latitude weather.

We also know that the melting of ice sheets cause sea levels to rise. But what does that mean?

When the global temperature increases, it warms the atmosphere of the planet, causing ice to melt out into the ocean. The ice formed on the water when climate cycles occur naturally is called water ice because of the hardening of water due to a dip in temperature. But when land ice begins to melt, for every centimeter rise in sea level, disasters such as flooding of coastal areas, erosion, soil contamination, coral degradation, shrinkage of islands, and the displacement of millions of people causing a massive refugee crisis, arises.

The refugee crisis is already a hot topic for the media, and with increased sea levels , an estimated 680 million people are likely to be displaced in the future. Global warming has already led to widespread shrinkage of the Cryosphere, mass loss of ice sheets and glaciers, reductions in snow cover and Arctic sea ice extent and thickness, and an increase in permafrost temperatures.

A simplified understanding of what is happening to the climate system is explained by Dr. Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist in the National Centre for Atmospheric Research taken from the documentary Chasing Ice. “Imagine a baseball player on steroids who steps up to the plate and hits a home run. Can you attribute that home run to his taking steroids? Well, steroids occur naturally in very small amounts in your system, but by adding just a little bit to those steroids, you can change your background physical state and increase your chances for enhanced performance. And that’s exactly what happens in the climate system. Greenhouse gases occur in very small amounts, but by increasing that just a little bit, you change the background state of the system and make it more susceptible to increased extremes.”

When studying ice sheets, it is observed that the levels of CO2 and temperature vary together. Currently, CO2 is 500 parts per million and increasing. This results in the oceans absorbing more CO2, increasing surface acidification. Since 1993, the rate at which oceans warm has doubled. This causes hotter and larger fires across the world, multiple consecutive cyclones, and hurricanes and could lead to a potential animal mass extinction event. Another cause for glacier melting is a substance called Cryoconite which is a dark incoherent granular sediment made up of organic and inorganic debris. Cryoconite is a deposit of dust and soot bound by microbial mats, that is often found in pot-hole like pockets on the ice surface. They are deep, black patches that enhance the absorption of light and heat in the ice, thereby contributing to the vertical melting of ice structures, making the ocean waters warmer.

In Recent news of the Arctic wildfires in July and August, parts of the Arctic, Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, and Canada, were engulfed in flames and smoke. This event was caused by dry storms in the hot weather and lightning strikes. It isn’t uncommon for such events during summer, but record-breaking temperatures and strong winds have made the fires particularly bad. These areas are also experiencing heat waves caused by anthropogenic activities, which means increased melting rate. These fires have released toxic gases that were visible via satellite images. In mid-May 2020, a pocket of scorching hot air flew over North Siberia and fanned out across the Arctic Ocean, reaching as far as Greenland and triggering an unprecedented heatwave.

The Californian, Amazonian, Australian , and other land wildfires also affect melting ice caps as the burning plant matter releases CO2 and black carbon, which is a heavy particle. They travel and settle on ice sheets, absorbing heat, and acting as a catalyst for melting.

The Trump administration is also taking final steps to let oil and gas companies drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda has rolled back methane standards for oil and gas industries. Five of the largest US banks have also stated that they wouldn’t fund ANWR projects as oil is cheaper and abundant elsewhere. The region is home to many endangered species, and an oil spill would lead to irreparable destruction to the Arctic ecosystem.

The lockdown has evidently brought about decreased levels of pollutants in the atmosphere, leaving clear skies, cleaner air, and reduced levels of greenhouse gases. This sudden drop in emission levels, although temporarily serves as a positive reinforcement, might also cause a jump in global warming temperatures in the long run. By the end of 2020, CO2 emission levels are expected to end up between 4 to 7% lower than 2019, making it the biggest drop in levels since World War 2. But scientists fear a rise in temperatures due to the re-boost of industries and desperate measures taken by countries to revive and sustain their economies. This will, in turn, flood the atmosphere with pollutants in the future, thereby increasing ice caps to melt rapidly. To avoid this, decreased levels of toxins released into the atmosphere should be maintained. It is not unattainable if there is cooperation.

So, what can we do? The answer is very simple. Despite the number of times one might have heard the solution to climate change, the implementation of those solutions is much lower. But we can:-

1. Reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses by using eco-friendly methods of transportation, housing, and lifestyle and focus on reducing your carbon footprint.

2. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.

3. Plant a tree, and

4. Spread awareness.

Apart from individual attempts, it is up to governments and institutional bodies to be at the frontier of climate action. There are difficulties in coordinating climate adaptation responses due to factors such as inaccessibility, demographic and settlement trends, financial, technological, institutional barriers, or land subsidence caused by local activities.

Some methods adopted by institutions and governments are integrating water management and ecosystem management tools such as assisted species relocation and coral gardening, which are locally effective. By rebuilding depleted fisheries, restoration of vegetated coastal ecosystems such as- mangroves, tidal marshes, and seagrass meadows, accelerating clean-energy investments, and dialing back on fossil fuels- there will be an increased carbon uptake and storage of around 0.5% of current global annual emissions.

Recent headlines regarding climate action taken up by numerous countries shine a ray of hope in lowering emissions and saving the Earth on the whole. 4 out of 6 of the world’s largest economies have proposed ending dates for their carbon emissions. China proposed reaching carbon neutrality by 2060 in the annual UN climate meeting, 2020. Many multinational companies have made commitments to go carbon neutral and zero-out emissions. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has been setting records for low-cost solar installations, becoming a role model in deploying energy efficiency measures.

The target set by the 2015 Paris climate agreement of holding warming below 1.5℃ might be achievable, despite the current global warming average being around 1℃. The EU proposed to cut its emissions by 55% by 2030. It also approved the world’s greenest stimulus plan, proposing to pour more than 500 billion euros into measures that will help fight global warming.

Apart from this, countries and institutions should also focus on education and climate literacy, monitoring and forecasting, sharing of data, information, knowledge and finance, and addressing social vulnerability and equity, to combat the climate crisis.

By: Melanie Dsouza