We Can’t Replace The Missing Ice

The above title is the claim that I have made for years and years on this blog. Ice, once melted, is not easily replaced. In some situations, it cannot even be replaced in a single human lifetime.

Ice becomes water when melted, contributing to creeks, streams, rivers and oceans. Ice is very much a part of the global hydrological cycle and in some regions, like Antarctica the snowfall accumulation there is so slow, that ice once lost to the ocean, is effectively forever gone (as far as human civilization is concerned – it takes thousands of years to replace). This is what is happening now, Antarctica is losing enormous quantities of ice, but so is the Arctic and Greenland and the Himalaya’s and the Andes and everywhere else glaciers can be found.

The rate of melt in Antarctica is so great now that it boggles the mind: it has increased 280% and measures over 252 gigatons per year. This is a 6-fold increase from 1990.

Once “gone” into the oceans, this ice isn’t coming back because snowfall in Antarctica is historically very very low (it’s one of the driest places on Earth). The ice formed there over millions of years as snowfall accumulated over vast spans of time, eventually compressing into thick sheets ice. But snowfall in Antarctica is very low and getting lower (just 50 millimeters per year). The ice is disappearing and raising sea levels world wide. Sea levels could rise up to 188 feet if Antarctica (all by itself) were to melt.

Add to that figure the rest of the land-bound ice in Greenland, the Andes and the Himalayas. Sea level rise is now inexorable and in my opinion, completely unstoppable. But as you might expect, the human response to sea level rise remains pathetically short-sighted. Instead of relocating away from coastal areas, these regions are still being built up, sea walls are being erected, pumping stations installed and other temporary measures are being utilized to allow civilization to continue to expand.

None of this is going to work indefinitely. It requires enormous amounts of power and resources and constant maintenance, and is swiftly overwhelmed during king tides, storm surge, hurricanes and the inexorable sea level rise that will eventually drown it all out no matter what. But something else that I’ve always said here is that “everything will be tried” to combat the declining biosphere and our man-made disaster. We’ll go right on building at the water’s edge and putting houses up on stilts and pumping out the drowned streets and infrastructure – as long as we can.

Civilization is extremely poorly suited for climate vulnerabilities that were not initially identified and planned for. We can cool our homes only just so much, or withstand just so much cold or rain or heat. But if the climate were to change much, we’d have great difficulty and discomfort trying to endure these changes. Flooding is one such example, as is wildfires. We’re not well-prepared for either, but they’re both direct consequences to a warming climate.

Humans are pretty slow to respond to existential threats, and human institutions are even worse then individuals. Bureaucracy, ideology and favoritism plays a large part in how our institutions “choose” what they will and will not do (think “who gets paid” to answer many of the questions about how decisions are reached).

Many public officials simply do not accept scientific analysis or results, believing themselves better qualified to “judge” the accuracy of sciences that they known almost nothing about. Trump exemplifies this gross self-deception as we have all seen, he considers himself a world-class expert on every subject imaginable, but as his record shows, he could not be more wrong if he tried. This “exceptionalism” at the highest levels of the American government has permitted other officials to make the same types of misguided claims, resulting in truly disastrous decisions for the country and the world.

So far, not much has been accomplished, or even decided upon for real climate adaption and the required changes to our existing civilization and infrastructure to accommodate major issues like sea level rise. Intransigence remains a main player in policy decisions. But it is already clear, after the wake and devastation of yet one disaster after another, civilization continues to remain extremely vulnerable to the cascading effects of climate change.

Very few policy makers are even aware of the missing ice issue, or the amped up hydrological cycle (global energy imbalance) that has increased atmospheric water vapor – which must come down somewhere eventually, and often does in a devastating deluge of rain, snow or even ice. Ground temperatures have also risen throughout the world resulting in increased levels of evaporation and drought. The end result is bigger storms and more destruction. Huge pauses in the jet stream cause stalling world weather patterns that can dump enormous quantities of water on specific regions and areas. This is already having a pretty large impact in terms of costs and economic losses, but we’re really not doing much to adapt for this.

Adaption is not the same thing as mitigation. In terms of climate adaption, this would be decisions, efforts and activities designed to build in resilience and survivability of our civilization for climate events. This would include infrastructure, agriculture, transportation, communications and so on. Make our civilization better able to withstand these extremes of wind, water, waves and drought that are all increasing. We know these events as storms, usually, but they can be anything that occurs in the global environment include fires or drought, landslides or even volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

Mitigation is something else. Mitigation means man-made efforts to reduce climate change (warming) and to try and restore the energy imbalance we’ve triggered. This would include activities to sequester carbon from the oceans or atmosphere (basalt injection has been proven to work but at a high energy, high cost), reduce ocean acidification, and any efforts to bring back the global energy imbalance towards equilibrium. But none of these efforts, ideas, proposals and even tests have found a way to replace the missing ice that has now melted and either gone back up into the atmosphere as water vapor or run off (eventually) into the oceans. And that is a huge problem.

Ice reflects solar radiation, as much as 90% back up into space. Open oceans like up in the Arctic, or land masses absorb most of the solar radiation, increasing global temperatures and raising temperatures in the oceans, soils and atmosphere. This sets up a feedback loop that melts more ice, and again, increases water vapor and changes the global energy balance. Bigger, more devastating storms form affecting food crops, infrastructure and economies.

Replacing the missing ice may prove to be quite impossible. Nobody knows how this might be done, because first, you’d have to return the Earth’s energy balance back to its previous state. And that’s not only never been done, it’s quite probably, factually impossible to do on a timescale that doesn’t factor in thousands of years (which won’t do us any good). Nobody actually thinks that we can do this, which means that the missing ice is never going to come back. Planetary heating is in effect, unstoppable now, and so is sea level rise and bigger and bigger storms, floods, droughts and fires. That’s the reality that nobody really wants to talk about. We can’t replace the missing ice, what’s gone is now gone “forever” as long as we live.

Only by cooling the entire planet would this be restoration be possible, but with devastating side-effects. Doing so could destroy civilization in as yet unforseen ways. But we’ve opened Pandora’s Box now and we are in a damned if we do, damned if we don’t situation. The ice is going to keep melting now. Sea levels are going to keep rising. Coastal regions will keep being destroyed. Storms are going to keep getting worse, with some regions being deluged (or wiped off the map) and others experiencing catastrophic droughts. Wildfires and fire storms will also continue to increase, as will tornado super-cells and every other imaginable weather event, maybe even some humanity has never seen. The truth is – we only know that these effects will get worse as the global energy imbalance continues to increase.

I’ve looked and looked for a climate adaption “plan”, effort or strategy that articulates these truths. I have not found one. But I have read many papers that dance around this new reality, claiming that they’ve got some sort of ideas that will make civilization better able to adapt. And a few pose mitigation plans, but none are to scale, none have been deployed, none have the political support or the funding necessary, none are making any kind of plans for reduced human survival – the most likely and in my opinion – obvious outcome to a changing world.

 

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