After enduring record summer temperatures in 2019 and 2020, a massive, 42-square-mile chunk of ice – an area larger than the city of Paris – broke off from the Arctic’s largest remaining ice shelf, the Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden. Scientists believe the Spalte Glacier’s disintegration, on top of the 60-square-mile ice shelf loss experienced by Nioghalvfjerdsfjorden since 1999, is yet more evidence of the adverse effects of climate change.
The oceans, which cover 71 percent of the Earth and the cryosphere, which covers 10 percent, are sleeping giants that could turbocharge climate change. Even in these remote parts of our planet, the effects of climate change are readily visible. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2019 report on the Earth’s oceans and cryosphere provides compelling evidence of the damage caused by climate change: catastrophic marine heatwaves, accelerating ice loss in Greenland and Antarctica, and unprecedented warming of permafrost. Another key finding is that sea-level rise is accelerating, and could rise between 0.95 feet and 3.6 feet by 2100.
Sea levels have been rising in part due to the Earth entering a warmer interglacial period, and in part, due to greenhouse gas emissions. The oceans have absorbed the majority of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases, leading to thermal expansion (water expands as it warms) and melting of glaciers and ice sheets, which contributes to sea-level rise.
Horrifying as the IPCC estimates may sound, they may only be at the low-end. Scientists at the Australian National University are predicting an even more catastrophic future. The team analyzed chemical changes in fossil shells in marine sediments from the Red Sea, examined Antarctica and Greenland’s meltwater input, and found that global seas rose about 10 meters above the Earth’s present level during the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago. How likely is this to happen again? It is plausible. Under the current climate change trajectory, projected temperatures are close – about 1℃ lower – to the last interglacial period.
According to a study by the Climate Central, this rise in sea levels represents more bad news for 300 million people who live in coastal cities that are already vulnerable to annual flooding or permanent inundation. In particular, the study paints a bleak picture in Asia. It expects major Asian cities like Shanghai, Bangkok, and Jakarta to fall permanently below the high tide line. At the extreme, Mumbai and Southern Vietnam could all but disappear. Beyond Asia, Brazil, Egypt, and the UK could also see permanent land loss.
Alarms bells have sounded, and the message cannot be more explicit. Sea-levels are rising, and if greenhouse gas emissions continue to remain unchecked, we are turbocharging ourselves towards a watery world. Governments should start preparing now as this is not just an environmental problem; it is also an economic, humanitarian, and political one.
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