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Antarctica’s melting glaciers are no false alarm

This satellite image provided by NASA shows Aqua MODIS 16 on March 25, 2022, shows C-38 in one piece chasing the main piece of C-37 moving west on the coastal current.
(Dr. Christopher A. Shuman, UMBC/NASA via AP)
This satellite image provided by NASA shows Aqua MODIS 16 on March 25, 2022, shows C-38 in one piece chasing the main piece of C-37 moving west on the coastal current. Scientists are concerned because an ice shelf the size of New York City collapsed in East Antarctica, an area that had long been thought to be stable. The collapse was the first time scientists had ever seen an ice shelf collapse in this cold area of Antarctica. (Dr. Christopher A. Shuman, UMBC/NASA via AP)

Just as it seems as though we as a collective society are beginning to take rising sea levels as seriously as we should, we get commentary dismissing the melting of Antarctica’s glaciers. 

Attempts to dampen the global response to the threat of Antarctica melting only serve to plunge more governmental heads into the sand. We must, instead, continue to highlight just how dangerous the situation could get. This is not needless fear-mongering — it is vital preparation. 

The critics’ primary arguments rest upon the notion that recent headlines on the melting Antarctic glaciers have been overblown, which is symptomatic of a larger trend in society towards consensus science, which produces disproportionate responses to issues such as climate change. Those adopting this argument claim that things will not be as bad as most scientists are predicting. 

One of the studies in question is recent research demonstrating that, at an unidentified point in history, a large Antarctic glacier melted away at a rate of around 2.1 km per year. This is twice the rate recorded at the fastest retreating part of the Antarctic grounding zone between 2011 and 2019. The scientists conducting the study stressed that “similar rapid retreat pulses are likely to occur in the near future.”

Was it necessary for the media to start spreading the word of a “Doomsday Glacier” and start reporting about the prospects of massive tsunamis and portions of the United Kingdom becoming an aquarium

Perhaps not. Yet, at the same time, it is no use pretending that this is not a critical situation. Some argue that, when it comes to the climate, we should stop paying attention to worst-case scenarios. While caution and pragmatism are always advisable when it comes to predictions, this perspective fails to recognize the fact that the world has — rightly — adopted a risk-management approach to climate change.

The risk-management viewpoint dictates that, even if a scenario has a low likelihood of happening, if it would be a high-consequence event, then it is still worth taking into account as we make preparations for the future. Losing homes and lives to floods is as high-consequence as it gets. 

By trivializing studies about the melting ice caps in Antarctica, we are giving decision-makers an excuse to pursue a course of inaction and avoidance. To dismiss the possibility of a glacial tipping point is not just complacent — it is downright immoral. 

For all the minutia commentators quibble over without recognizing the power of risk management to protect lives, there are hundreds of studies emphasizing just how serious this crisis could become. Antarctica is losing ice mass at an average of 150 billion tons every single year. Furthermore, Greenland is losing around 280 billion tons per year. The meltwater from these ice sheets has been responsible for around a third of the global average rise in sea levels since 1993. 

Sea levels have risen roughly eight to nine inches since 1880. However, more than 30 percent of this increase has taken place during the last two decades. This is precisely why these rising sea levels are predicted to exacerbate issues of coastal exposure. 

The projected effects are not just pessimistic exaggerations put out by gloomy scientists that want to upset people. They are tragically realistic, and if the melting rates continue as they are currently, then Antarctica and Greenland will be on track to match the worst-case scenarios issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This predicts an extra 6.7 inches of sea level increase by the end of the century. 

The impacts are already being felt. High tide flooding is now 300 percent to 900 percent more common than it was 50 years ago. In early September, temperatures above freezing were recorded at Summit Station in Greenland for the first time ever. 

By discussing these prospects and making both our leaders and the public more aware of the possibilities that lie ahead of us, we are not resorting to scare tactics. We are simply helping the world to prepare for the worst so that we never find ourselves in a situation that we are fatally ill-equipped to respond to. 

Instead of continually giving our government justification for cutting funding for Antarctic research projects, we must encourage them to bolster their investment in these scientists. The National Science Foundation, which funds Antarctic research, has limited resources. In the past, the U.S. has even had to rely on foreign icebreakers, because it only had one to its name. Funding for this kind of research is often pushed to the back of the queue behind sexier, space-based projects.

We should look to follow the example of Australia, whose government announced back in 2019 an investment of over $450 million into Antarctic research over the next 10 years. This is geared towards modernizing its suite of existing research stations, along with the infrastructure that supports them. 

If we are serious about preventing rising sea levels, then all relevant governments have no other choice but to boost their funding towards studies in Antarctica. Articles criticizing those efforts are putting detrimental and unnecessary obstacles in the way. 

Unfortunately, many who are climate dismissive are misguided in their skepticism. We cannot allow the planet to be what pays for their misjudgment. 

Gary Yohe is a professor of economics and environmental studies at Wesleyan University who specializes in microeconomic theory, natural resources and environmental economics.

Tags Antarctica Climate change coastal flooding melting glaciers Politics of the United States sea level rising

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