Greenland Is Melting – The New Yorker

November 7, 2016

When a country melts Calving of Greenland’s icesheets portends >3′ rise in sea level. Has this been set into motion?


“I first visited the Greenland ice sheet in the summer of 2001. At that time, vivid illustrations of climate change were hard to come by. Now they’re everywhere—in the flooded streets of Florida and South Carolina, in the beetle-infested forests of Colorado and Montana, in the too warm waters of the Mid-Atlantic and the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico, in the mounds of dead mussels that washed up this summer on the coast of Long Island and the piles of dead fish that coated the banks of the Yellowstone River.

But the problem with global warming—and the reason it continues to resist illustration, even as the streets flood and the forests die and the mussels rot on the shores—is that experience is an inadequate guide to what’s going on. The climate operates on a time delay. When carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere, it takes decades—in a technical sense, millennia—for the earth to equilibrate. This summer’s fish kill was a product of warming that had become inevitable twenty or thirty years ago, and the warming that’s being locked in today won’t be fully felt until today’s toddlers reach middle age. In effect, we are living in the climate of the past, but already we’ve determined the climate’s future.

Global warming’s back-loaded temporality makes all the warnings—from scientists, government agencies, and, especially, journalists—seem hysterical, Cassandra-like—Ototototoi!—even when they are understated. Once feedbacks take over, the climate can change quickly, and it can change radically. At the end of the last ice age, during an event known as meltwater pulse 1A, sea levels rose at the rate of more than a foot a decade. It’s likely that the “floodgates” are already open, and that large sections of Greenland and Antarctica are fated to melt. It’s just the ice in front of us that’s still frozen.”