Some Pacific island nations including Tuvalu and the Arctic’s Kivalina could have to evacuate their populations in the next ten years due to rising sea levels. It’s as clear a sign as any of the existence of climate change and its irreversible impact.
As Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told the Guardian at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are melting at a much faster rate than predicted. The major ice sheets in Greenland and the Arctic are “critical from the standpoint of sea level rise.” Once these start melting, sea level begins to rise at a faster rate, a reminder of how what happens in one part of the world plays out elsewhere.
Many of the Pacific Islands are only 4.6 meters above sea level at their highest point, so even a small rise in ocean temperatures could causes flooding, erosion and the loss of fresh water supplies.
There’s no question that the sea ice in the arctic is lessening. Three weeks ago, the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado reported that the sea ice had shrunk 18 percent more than the previous record in 2007, to a record low of 3.41 square kilometers.
Mann (who was one of the members of an IPCC team on climate change that won a Nobel Prize in 2007) and other scientists had previously predicted that sea levels would rise to dangerous levels for residents of islands such as Tuvalu, but they had not thought this would happen so soon. Mann emphasized the huge dilemma for the islands’ residents, who stand to lose “thousands of years of culture” and will have to leave their homes, their world, behind before too long as a direct result of “dangerous anthropogenic interference.”
Overall, Mann states that we need to acknowledge that greenhouse gas emissions are already affecting us in dramatic ways. The unprecedented drought and wildfires of last summer are other indicators that what some thought were theoretical effects of climate change have become realities. Says Mann,
The climate models tell us that what today are record breaking levels of heat will become a typical summer in a matter of 20-30 years if we carry on with business as usual. Not only will this become the new normal but we will have to change the scale because we will see heat and drought far worse than anything we have seen before.
Mann is aware of how dire his predictions sound and has indeed come under heavy criticism from climate deniers for making such. But as he tells the Guardian, scientists have tended to be “conservative in their forecasts out of fear that they will be attacked for overstating evidence.” Climate deniers have used “tactics” that seek “not only to intimidate scientists already in the public arena, but also to warn off others from taking part in the public discourse.”
On a more positive note, Mann describes himself as “optimistic” that public attitudes about climate change are shifting. He even suggests that we are “close to a potential tipping point in public consciousness” due, for worse or for better, to people experiencing what climate change means, the searing heat of summers like the last one.
Indeed, I often recall a conversation with a student who has declared himself a staunch supporter of fighting against global warming. This student was not, by his own admitting, an environmentalist activist or drawn to green causes. He had spent a happy semester studying in a Scandinavian country where he’d found reindeer meat for sale at the grocery store. Returning to New Jersey, he was appalled at how cold the winter wasn’t and so many people (not me) shrugged off the warmer temperatures.
Islands are being lost, soon there will no sea ice in the arctic in the summer. Welcome to a warm new world of our own making.
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