Toward Unstoppable Sea-Level Rise

seaicePress release by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research


Uncorking East Antarctica yields unstoppable sea-level rise

The melting of a rather small ice volume on East Antarctica’s shore could trigger a persistent ice discharge into the ocean, resulting in unstoppable sea-level rise for thousands of years to come. This is shown in a study now published in Nature Climate Change by scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). The findings are based on computer simulations of the Antarctic ice flow using improved data of the ground profile underneath the ice sheet.

“East Antarctica’s Wilkes Basin is like a bottle on a slant,” says lead-author Matthias Mengel, “once uncorked, it empties out.” The basin is the largest region of marine ice on rocky ground in East Antarctica. Currently a rim of ice at the coast holds the ice behind in place: like a cork holding back the content of a bottle. While the air over Antarctica remains cold, warming oceans can cause ice loss on the coast. Ice melting could make this relatively small cork disappear – once lost, this would trigger a long term sea-level rise of 300-400 centimeters. “The full sea-level rise would ultimately be up to 80 times bigger than the initial melting of the ice cork,” says co-author Anders Levermann.

“Until recently, only West Antarctica was considered unstable, but now we know that its ten times bigger counterpart in the East might also be at risk,” says Levermann, who is head of PIK’s research area Global Adaptation Strategies and a lead-author of the sea-level change chapter of the most recent scientific assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. This report, published in late September, projects Antarctica’s total sea level contribution to be up to 16 centimeters within this century. “If half of that ice loss occurred in the ice-cork region, then the discharge would begin. We have probably overestimated the stability of East Antarctica so far,” says Levermann.

Emitting greenhouse-gases could start uncontrollable ice-melt

Melting would make the grounding line retreat – this is where the ice on the continent meets the sea and starts to float. The rocky ground beneath the ice forms a huge inland sloping valley below sea-level. When the grounding line retreats from its current position on a ridge into the valley, the rim of the ice facing the ocean becomes higher than before. More ice is then pushed into the sea, eventually breaking off and melting. And the warmer it gets, the faster this happens.

Complete ice discharge from the affected region in East Antarctica takes five thousand to ten thousand years in the simulations. However, once started, the discharge would slowly but relentlessly continue until the whole basin is empty, even if climate warming stopped. “This is the underlying issue here”, says Matthias Mengel. “By emitting more and more greenhouse gases we might trigger responses now that we may not be able to stop in the future.” Such extensive sea level rise would change the face of planet Earth – coastal cities such as Mumbai, Tokyo or New York are likely to be at risk.

Article: Mengel, M., Levermann, A. (2014): Ice plug prevents irreversible discharge from East Antarctica. Nature Climate Change (online) [DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2226]

Weblink to the article:

Related article: Levermann, A., Bamber, J., Drijfhout, S., Ganopolski, A., Haeberli, W., Harris, N.R.P., Huss, M., Krüger, K., Lenton, T., Lindsay, R.W., Notz, D., Wadhams, P., Weber, S. (2012): Potential climatic transitions with profound impact on Europe – Review of the current state of six ‘tipping elements of the climate system’.

Climatic Change 110 (2012), 845-878, [DOI 10.1007/s10584-011-0126-5] (

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1 Response

  1. Poo says:

    Good Grief, the Climate Porn models now see disaster 5,000 to 10,000 years away. I wonder if I can buy any insurance against that. Nothing like another Doomsday report from Potsdam and its cadre of fund raisers and computer model makers to fuel the seemingly never-ending apocalyptic warnings that man-made climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to life on Earth. Could this finally be the last disaster prior to the earth crashing into the sun or will there be additional models offering cures that do not return us to the economic Stone Age? Apparently, we’ve got time! Pardon my lack of panic from the latest Potsdam series of “computer simulations.” Why don’t they just send out notices with the fund raising pleas that the ‘sky is falling’ so we can all run and ‘tell the king’, whoever he may be. I guess Commonwealth types like me will tell the Queen. I’ll give her a call.

    The first thing to learn about Antarctica is the seasons. Winter is March 21 – September 21 (now) while summer is September 22 – March 20 (coming soon). Clearly this makes quite a difference although 74 Global warming scientists and advocates plus their ships and crews found themselves stuck in the Antarctica ice that wasn’t supposed to be this Arctic summer. It happens. They wanted to show melting but hey, weather is weather. Measure enough of it and you have a climate! One-hundred years prior, explorer Douglas Mawson got within 50 yards of shore in a wooden ship. He was not stopped by ice as the modern, completely equipped ice-breaker was but by water too shallow for his sextant-only equipped, wooden ship. He also travelled 300 miles inland. The climateers were stopped by miles of summer ice.

    The overall volume of Antarctic ice is the highest it has been in thirty-five years. Arctic ice too was up 29% last year. It froze up in August trapping several boats and other intrepid scientists and explorers in search of a catastrophe before they became one. Of course in summer the Arctic ice sheet can retreat hundreds of miles. In Antarctica, sea ice grows quite extensively during winter but nearly completely melts away during the summer.

    Naturally Potsdam references the hapless IPCC’s latest report. Sadly, Potsdam shares many cross-over and financial interests with the much discredited IPCC. Sadly too, Potsdam ignores the salient points in the latest IPCC report which acknowledges that any viable move to a low-carbon dioxide global economy must include nuclear power, replacing coal power with natural gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS). Yipes! Heresy!

    The IPCC, indebted as it is to the radical environmentalists who intensely detest ideas such as these, also lavishly praises expensive, unreliable and inefficient wind and solar power. The IPCC writers know full well that at their current level of development wind and solar cannot power modern, industrialized economies such as Canada or the U.S.

    Neither can wind and solar power developing economies like China’s, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter. They are building hundreds of coal-fired electricity plants all the while manufacturing wind and solar equipment to sell to willing dupes in North America.

    The latest 33-page IPCC report addresses (pages 23 and 24) the need for non-emitting and low-emitting conventional energy technologies to reduce rising global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

    “Nuclear energy is a mature low-GHG emission source of base load power but its share of global electricity generation has been declining (since 1993). Nuclear energy could make an increasing contribution to low-carbon energy supply, but a variety of barriers and risks exist.” The largest risk, of course, being the protests of ill-informed eco-warriors propped up by self-serving and profiteering NGOs set up as non-profits. In the U.S. they are heavy donors to Democrats. Just saying.

    As Robert Bryce explains in Power Hungry: The Myths of ‘Green’ Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future is this: “If you are anti-carbon dioxide and anti-nuclear, you are pro-blackout.” The fuels of the future are nuclear power and natural gas. Wind and solar simply are not ready for prime time. There is much doubt as to whether they ever will be.

    My home Province, Ontario, offers a good example. In 2012, nuclear power provided 56% of all electricity generation, wind 3% and solar so little it wasn’t even separately measured. The Provincial Liberal government likes to nonsensically boast that it replaced coal-fired electricity with wind. This is nonsense. The fact is, high-emitting coal power was replaced with low-emitting natural gas and nuclear energy. Both are also needed to back up the aforementioned unreliable wind and solar power. So we have to heavily subsidize wind and power all the while providing back-up nuclear and natural gas power. There’s a plan. The major problem with nuclear power here has never been public safety but cost. Nuclear power is expensive and almost always more expensive than predicted. But then, so are wind and solar power, which have the added disadvantages of being inefficient, unreliable and almost useless. If it is all about money, the cheapest source of energy is coal; which is why China, India and the U.S., unlike Canada, use it to generate so much of their electricity.

    The IPCC report also noted that:

    “GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced significantly by replacing … coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants, or combined heat and power plants, provided that natural gas is available and the fugitive emissions associated with extraction and supply are low or mitigated.”

    This will also drive the environmentalists and eco-warriors out of their wee minds. One suspects they will not quote it widely. Potsdam does not! You see, in addition to hating nuclear power, they oppose all forms of fossil fuel energy. They will never acknowledge the painfully obvious point that natural gas and nuclear power are necessary to lower global GHG emissions.

    Most environmental activists harbour a deep and irrational distrust of the technologies needed to accomplish the things they insist we must do. Mind you, in their personal lives they seem to own and use every new technological gizmo and communication device available. So don’t expect them to agree with IPCC when it states:

    “Carbon dioxide capture and storage (CCS) technologies could reduce the lifecycle GHG emissions of fossil fuel power plants.”

    This particular eco-conflict with the IPCC report is minor as CCS is not yet in large-scale commercial use. Save for a handful of examples in countries like Canada, where it is supported by the federal, Alberta and Saskatchewan governments, CCS is more theory than practice.

    The reality is no amount of scare-mongering, consciousness-raising, or donating money to environmental groups, or tweeting, texting or “liking” Facebook pages ostensibly devoted to fighting global warming, is going to make one iota of difference to the planet. In the end, it is all a “counsel of despair”, which makes the public feel helpless in the face of the so-called climate apocalypse to come.

    The problem with computer simulations, out-weighted models or simplistic, symbolic campaigns like Earth Hour is that they do nothing in practical terms to reduce the possible impact of climate change or simply any onslaught of bad weather or a deluge. Whether the world is warming or cooling due to natural or man-made causes (or a combination of the two) the single most effective thing we could do globally today would be to stop all new construction, be it residential, commercial, industrial or manufacturing, on flood plains and coastlines. The world’s most vulnerable populations to weather extremes live close to major bodies of water, at or below sea level. They are the prime targets for the high winds and storm surges caused by hurricanes.
    By not making this problem worse, while over the long term reducing population densities in these areas, would dramatically reduce the global carnage caused by hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, tsunamis and the like. Of course, I have been ranting on about this since I was a boy and Hurricane Hazel came to my town in 1954. Yes dear readers, I was very much alive then! Thoughtful city planners of the time stopped building along our many rivers that flow into Lake Ontario. They are beautiful and much used park lands today.

    Stronger building codes, sea walls, repairing, upgrading and replacing aging water and sewer infrastructure, properly maintaining roads, bridges and public transit and properly equipping emergency first responders, would all help cities better with stand the impacts of extreme weather, no matter the cause. In the U.S., this money was borrowed, allocated and, of the near one-trillion dollars, only 5% found a shovel ready application. Can’t blame Bush for that.

    Unlike proven failures like carbon pricing schemes, which primarily benefit big government and big corporations under the pretext of “fixing” the climate a century from now, infrastructure projects generate real jobs and real incomes in the present, for real workers who pay real taxes.

    In fairness, a growing number of environmentalists, those with a scientific background as opposed to one in political science, support nuclear power as part of the solution to addressing climate change.They include Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace; scientist and inventor James Lovelock, who developed the Gaia theory of the planet being a single living organism and environmental journalist George Monbiot.

    The tragedy is we are paralyzed by climate porn and feel-good nonsense. Secular superstition has replaced religion and is promoted with far more missionary zeal. The eco-warriors have their Eden too. It is life as it was some time before industrialization (save for their own toys, of course). The use of carbon, to have a carbon footprint is a sin; it is immoral. For the record, that is not science. That is religion.

    Happily, you can buy an indulgence for your sins, if you’re rich and important. So sinners like David Suzuki and Al Gore, who have enormous carbon footprints, can buy “carbon offsets,” to get themselves off the hook for their hypocrisy.

    Reduce, reuse, recycle is a religious mantra not a scientific observation. It is a moral code. It is also contrary to thousands of years of western cultural teachings. To reduce, to shrink or have smaller numbers is not how mankind, or nature, is wired. All plants, all animals, all people, are built to increase, not decrease. It is called reproduction. It is contrary to nature to live a life of reduction and minimization. If you want that, try North Korea.

    There are more people on this planet than ever before. Some 5,000,000,000 have been added since I arrived! They live longer, and suffer less and are happier than ever before. Life before industrialization was nasty, brutish, short, diseased, hungry and cold. It’s better now. Even the poor have more money, government aid and medical care.

    The bottom line is we do have choices. We can heed the increasingly hysterical “climate porn” warnings of imminent catastrophe as regularly issued by the IPCC and Potsdam. This would send us back to the Stone Age with unreliable and inefficient wind and solar power for solely anti-capitalist, anti-development ideological reasons. OR we can take realistic steps using proven technologies to lower GHG emissions and air pollution until scientists and engineers (real scientists and engineers not know-nothing eco-warriors and movie stars) develop clean energy technologies to the point where they are practical for modern, industrialized societies.

    As an old person who has no plans for 5,000 to 10,000 years from now, I am happy with whatever today’s young taxpayer’s choose. I am confident they will choose wisely. If not well, nothing lasts forever.

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