How sea levels could rise dramatically

“How climate hysterics hurt their own cause.” — September 2014 headline from The Atlantic magazine I get side-tracked easily. I read The Atlantic article and was going to do a column on coal versus oil in the CO2 emissions debate (the author, Charles C. Mann, stated that coal was a much bigger worry).

“How climate hysterics hurt their own cause.”

— September 2014 headline from The Atlantic magazine

I get side-tracked easily. I read The Atlantic article and was going to do a column on coal versus oil in the CO2 emissions debate (the author, Charles C. Mann, stated that coal was a much bigger worry).

But then I noticed a tidbit that puzzled me. Mann, after reading a study from the prestigious journal Science, wrote that current melting from the West Antarctic ice sheet is only raising ocean levels by about 0.25 mm per year. That’s nothing. At that rate, Florida will drown at about the same time as Kim Kardashian writes a book about the Soviet penal system.

So I had a closer look. And I found that even the notoriously anti-alarmist wattsupwiththat.com was careful to note that “This study specifically cautions that the simulations used were not coupled to global climate models and as such these simulation results do not constitute a projection of future sea level rise impacts.” In other words, that very tiny rate of sea level rise doesn’t take into account the accelerating growth rates of not only our CO2 output, but also warming via the much more alarming liberation of CO2 and methane from the warming tundra in Canada and Russia.

And neither does that very small number begin to take into account the mechanism by which an Antarctic ice sheet lives and dies. The much bigger threat to sea levels is that caused by retreating “grounding lines,” which is where the bottom of glaciers meet bedrock. The middle part of a glacier is like an ice cube on a sheet of sandpaper. Even though the bottom of the ice is very slippery, it is still somewhat stuck. But when the warming ocean gets in between the two, it lifts up the ice and allows it to advance over the sandpaper (or bedrock) much more rapidly. And when that advancing chunk of ice calves off into a bunch of little icebergs in the ocean, the whole lot melts a lot more quickly.

So how fast can a grounding line retreat? The Pine Island glacier on the West Antarctic ice sheet is a veritable Speedy Gonzales. In the last 20 years, its grounding line has retreated about 25 km toward the South Pole. In other words, that’s how far the ocean has forced its way between the glacier and the bedrock of the Antarctic continent.

Compare that to the Athabasca Glacier just west of here. In the last 115 years, it has only retreated about 1.5 km. So the grounding line for the Pine Island Glacier — the point at which the ice is liable to crack off and float away — has been moving about a hundred times as fast as the Athabasca Glacier has been retreating.

The other hidden bit in the puzzle relates to the bedrock topography of Antarctica as a whole. When we look at a map of the place, we just assume that underneath the ice is a massive rock, which would still look something like the shape of Antarctica. But that’s not the case. Just google “Antarctic bedrock map” to see how much the continent shrinks without its icy mantle. All of a sudden it is half of what is currently shown in an atlas.

Why is that important? Because with no bedrock above sea level, that “grounding line” can easily advance across the whole width of West Antarctica with nothing to slow it down. And once you get two million cubic km of ice floating around, breaking up into little pieces and melting, you have a big problem.

And that’s where the article in The Atlantic fell silent. For some reason, Mann didn’t bother to read the whole article from the journal Science. For if he did, he might have noted that the researchers warned that in a worst case scenario, the sea levels could rise (just from the West Antarctic ice alone) 3.6 metres in 200 years. That’s about 75 times faster than the rate noted above.

And of course, that doesn’t take into account the ice in East Antarctica (another 25 million cubic km) and Greenland (three million cubic km).

But maybe we should cut Mann some slack. After all, he’s not a scientist. And he did make the much more believable statement about coal emissions being a significantly larger threat than oil emissions.

So perhaps for next month — if I don’t get sidetracked again — I’ll look at how Alberta is doing with regard to emissions from coal versus conventional oil versus bitumen.

Evan Bedford is a local environmentalist. Direct comments, questions and suggestions to wyddfa23@telus.net. Visit the Energy and Ecology website at www.evanbedford.com.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Members of the Red Deer RCMP downtown patrol monitor for drug activity and property crimes. (Advocate file photo).
Two peace officers are training to join Red Deer’s downtown police patrol unit

This “integrated” unit will be the first in Alberta

Students and staff at Gateway Christian School wore pink Wednesday in support of Pink Shirt Day, a worldwide anti-bullying initiative that was started in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Public Schools)
Students, central Alberta community celebrate Pink Shirt Day

Mayor of Sylvan Lake Sean McIntyre supports anti-bullying cause

City of Red Deer has nearly doubled its active COVID-19 case count since Feb. 10 and has 75.6 per cent of the Central zone’s active cases. (File photo)
Another new high: Red Deer hits 574 active COVID-19 cases

Province reports 13 new COVID-19 deaths, 430 new cases

A homeless shelter was promised Red Deer to help the city deal with downtown issues. The city and province finally released a signed agreement on what the facility will offer, a year after a $7 million commitment was made for the project by the province. (Advocate file photo).
City and province take next step in bringing a 24/7 shelter to Red Deer

It will include a detox and counselling services

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a UHN COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. A new survey says eroding trust in scientists, CEOs and journalists could hamper the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in Canada. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
9 Red Deer pharmacies set to offer COVID-19 vaccine to seniors next week

Seniors in Red Deer and central Alberta will have more avanues to… Continue reading

Meteor spotted over Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 22, 2021 by several, who took to social media to share their surveillance camera captures. (@KixxAxe/Twitter)
VIDEO: Fireball meteor streaks across sky, spotted by early-morning risers in Alberta, B.C.

Videos of the quick streak of light flashing across the sky before 6:30 a.m. MST

Purolator expanding rural facilities amid demand from remote workers

Purolator expanding rural facilities amid demand from remote workers

Trans Mountain pipeline owner asks regulator to hide identity of its insurers

Trans Mountain pipeline owner asks regulator to hide identity of its insurers

The Crescent Point Energy Corp. logo is shown in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Crescent Point vows to pay down debt from Shell acquisition with rising oil profits

Crescent Point vows to pay down debt from Shell acquisition with rising oil profits

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces $43 million in repairs and improvements to provincial parks at a news conference in Calgary on Sep. 15, 2020. Two of Alberta's largest First Nations have written letters to coal companies saying they will oppose any new mine proposals in the Rocky Mountains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
‘Serious concerns’: Alberta First Nations oppose coal expansion in Rocky Mountains

‘Serious concerns’: Alberta First Nations oppose coal expansion in Rocky Mountains

A street sign along Bay Street in Toronto's financial district is shown in Toronto on Tuesday, January 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Toronto stock market climbs on strong gains by energy and financials sectors

Toronto stock market climbs on strong gains by energy and financials sectors

A National Bank sign is seen May 30, 2016 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
National Bank sees profit rise as consumers save, invest more

National Bank sees profit rise as consumers save, invest more

Email editor@interior-news.com
Letter: Read up on tax report

The Advocate article published Feb. 20 about the Canadian Taxpayers Federation slamming… Continue reading

Opinion
Opinion: When Kenney promises no tax hike, does he mean it?

Premier Jason Kenney is trying to assure Albertans that there won’t be… Continue reading

Most Read