This commentary was also published on the Project Syndicate website.
By Jeffrey D. Sachs, Guido Schmidt-Traub and Jim Williams
In the run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris, more than 150 governments submitted plans to reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Many observers are asking whether these reductions are deep enough. But there is an even more important question: Will the chosen path to 2030 provide the basis for ending greenhouse-gas emissions later in the century?
According to the scientific consensus, climate stabilization requires full decarbonization of our energy systems and zero net greenhouse-gas emissions by around 2070. The G-7 has recognized that decarbonization—the only safe haven from disastrous climate change—is the ultimate goal this century. And many heads of state from the G-20 and other countries have publicly declared their intention to pursue this path.
Yet the countries at COP21 are not yet negotiating decarbonization. They are negotiating much more modest steps, to 2025 or 2030, called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. The United States’ contribution, for example, commits the U.S. to reduce CO2 emissions by 26-28 percent, relative to a 2005 baseline, by 2025.
Though the fact that more than 150 intended contributions have been submitted represents an important achievement of the international climate negotiations, most pundits are asking whether the sum of these commitments is enough to keep global warming below the agreed limit of 2º Celsius (3.6º Fahrenheit). They are debating, for example, whether the contributions add up to a 25 percent or 30 percent reduction by 2030, and whether we need a 25 percent, 30 percent or 40 percent reduction by then to be on track.
But the most important issue is whether countries will achieve their 2030 targets in a way that helps them to get to zero emissions by 2070 (full decarbonization). If they merely pursue measures aimed at reducing emissions in the short term, they risk locking their economies into high levels of emissions after 2030. The critical issue, in short, is not 2030, but what happens afterward.
There are reasons to worry. There are two paths to 2030. We might call the first path “deep decarbonization,” meaning steps to 2030 that prepare the way for much deeper steps after that. The second path could be called the way of “low-hanging fruit”—easy ways to reduce emissions modestly, quickly and at relatively low cost. The first path might offer little low-hanging fruit; indeed, the low-hanging fruit can become a distraction or worse.
Here is the reason for worry. The simplest way to reduce emissions to 2030 is by converting coal-fired power plants to gas-fired power plants. The former emit about 1,000 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour; the latter emit around half of that. During the coming 15 years, it would not be hard to build new gas-fired plants to replace today’s coal plants. Another low-hanging fruit is great gains in the fuel efficiency of internal combustion engines, taking automobile mileage from, say, 35 miles per gallon in the U.S. to 55 miles per gallon by 2025.
The problem is that gas-fired power plants and more efficient internal-combustion vehicles are not nearly enough to get to zero net emissions by 2070. We need to get to around 50 grams per kilowatt-hour by 2050, not 500 grams per kilowatt-hour. We need to get to zero-emission vehicles, not more efficient gas-burning vehicles, especially given that the number of vehicles worldwide could easily double by mid-century.
Deep decarbonization requires not natural gas and fuel-efficient vehicles, but zero-carbon electricity and electric vehicles charged on the zero-carbon electricity grid. This more profound transformation, unlike the low-hanging fruit eyed today by many politicians, offers the only path to climate safety (that is, staying below the 2º C limit). By pursuing coal to gas, or more efficient gas-burning vehicles, we risk putting ourselves into a high-carbon trap.
The figure above illustrates the conundrum. The low-hanging-fruit pathway (red) achieves a steep reduction by 2030. It probably does so at lower cost than the deep-decarbonization pathway (green), because the conversion to zero-carbon electricity (for example, wind and solar power) and to electric vehicles might be more costly than a simple patch-up of our current technologies. The problem is that the low-hanging-fruit pathway will achieve fewer reductions after 2030. It will lead into a dead end. Only the deep-decarbonization pathway gets the economy to the necessary stage of decarbonization by 2050 and to zero net emissions by 2070.
The allure of the short-term fix is very powerful, especially to politicians watching the election cycle. Yet it is a mirage. In order for policymakers to understand what’s really at stake in decarbonization, and therefore what they should do today to avoid dead-end gimmicks and facile solutions, all governments should prepare commitments and plans not only to 2030 but also at least to 2050. This is the main message of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, which has mobilized research teams in 16 of the largest greenhouse-gas emitting countries to prepare national Deep Decarbonization Pathways to mid-century.
The project shows that deep decarbonization is technically feasible and affordable, and it has identified pathways to 2050 that avoid the traps and temptations of low-hanging fruit and put the major economies on track to full decarbonization by around 2070. The pathways all rely on three pillars: major advances in energy efficiency, using smart materials and smart (information-based) systems; zero-carbon electricity, drawing upon each country’s best options, such as wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage; and fuel-switching from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles and other shifts to electrification or advanced biofuels.
A key question for Paris, therefore, is not whether governments achieve 25 percent or 30 percent reductions by 2030, but how they intend to do it. For that, the Paris agreement should stipulate that every government will submit not only an Intended Nationally Determined Contribution for 2030, but also a non-binding Deep Decarbonization Pathway to 2050. The U.S. and China have already signaled their interest in this approach. In this way, the world can set a course toward decarbonization—and head off the climate catastrophe that awaits us if we don’t.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is professor of sustainable development, professor of health policy and management, and director of the Earth Institute. He is also special adviser to the United Nations secretary-general on the Millennium Development Goals. Guido Schmidt-Traub is executive director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Jim Williams is director of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.
By Isabela Messias and Kathy Zhang
Wondering what’s going on in Paris? And why you should care? A team of young people working on climate issues from many perspectives—policy, science, media, activism—have created Climate Countdown, a video web series that follows the people who are crafting paths toward a meaningful climate agreement at the Paris climate summit. At the heart of it, Climate Countdown is director Kaia Rose’s personal journey to find out what people are actually doing to tackle the climate crisis and how we, as ordinary citizens, can push for solutions.
Over the course of 2015, the Climate Countdown team set out to make the acronym-laden process of climate change negotiations digestible, conversational and shareable. The episodes range from 8-12 minutes long and cover such topics as COP21 (the 21st Conference of the Parties, as the UN talks are known), the INDCs (the “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions”—what countries are proposing to do), implementation, carbon pricing, and China.
Kaia Rose and Eric Mann, executive producer and director of photography, are currently in Paris for the UN climate conference. Visit climatecountdown.org to learn more about the web series and connect on @ClimatCountdown for live updates from Paris.
To further understand the challenges and opportunities in climate communications, the Sustainability Media Lab with the Sustainable Development Solutions Network Youth Initiative organized the first film screening of Climate Countdown at Columbia on Nov. 15, featuring two panel discussions on the web series and climate media at large.
The event’s first panel focused on the Paris negotiations and the making of the Climate Coutndown series. “It feels like Paris is going to be turning the corner,” said Rose. Panelists discussed reasons for optimism, including the bottom-up approach of countries submitting their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions and the recent China-U.S. joint announcement on climate change. The panelists underscored the importance of public awareness and an active civil society in pushing politicians and holding them accountable to the carbon reduction pledges they present in Paris.
The event also featured a panel on “The state of climate change and COP21 media.” Climate communications professionals highlighted the importance of modifying the vocabulary, framing, and messenger to fit the context. Panelists discussed the extreme politicization of climate change in the U.S. and strategies to divorce climate action from political preference. You can listen to that conversation here, on YouTube.
Climate Countdown aims to equip the public with the knowledge, vocabulary, and tools to have a voice in building political will to avoid a global climate crisis. If you would like to join this endeavor, contact the team at email@example.com.
Isabela Messias is a graduate student at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and the NY focal point for SDSN Youth, an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network working to engage youth globally in the Sustainable Development Goals.
Kathy Zhang is the communications associate at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the founder of the Sustainability Media Lab, a Columbia student initiative working to make sustainable development more accessible, relevant, and compelling across all media.
Four students in the Masters in Development Practice program at the University of Waterloo in Canada have traveled to Paris for the climate summit to represent the Republic of Kiribati. The small island nation is one of several threatened by sea level rise, one of the most immediate impacts of climate change.
The four are among students from 28 masters in development practice programs, including the Earth Institute’s Masters in Public Administration-Development Practice at Columbia, who are participating in various ways at the climate talks in Paris.
As official delegates of the island republic, Laura Maxwell, Vidya Nair, Rija Rasul and Kadra Rayale are conscious of what these negotiations could mean to nations like Kiribati.
“This is not only an environmental crisis, but also puts at stake the right to develop sustainably for those most vulnerable to climate change but the least responsible” says Nair.
“The decisions that are made at this summit will shape the future of small island developing states across the globe. To take part in these negotiations will mean that we had a small hand in assuring that nations like Kiribati are viewed as key players in our shared goal of mitigating the effects of climate change” says Rayal.
Maxwell, Nair, Rasul and Rayale have diverse interests in ecology, health, good governance and migration respectively, and are interested on the impacts of climate change in these four realms with respect to small island developing states.
“Fostering youth participation and engagement in the development and sustainability discourse is crucial for the future of the planet,” says Professor Simron Singh, the MDP program director at Waterloo. “The youth are not only important stakeholders of the future, but also a major force of change as they bring in new insights and perspectives.”
The Paris talks—called the 21st Conference of the Parties or COP21—is the first major international summit since the adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals by the UN this past September. The students are concerned how the climate negotiations would advance the discourse concerning the Sustainable Development Goals. Through interactions with state delegates, NGOs and members of industry, they hope to assist in creating a greater international presence for the Republic of Kiribati.
During their time at these negotiations, they will help raise awareness on the impacts of climate change for small island nations by updating a live blog of their daily meetings attended with the Kiribati delegation as well as various side events being held in Paris. They will also be posting on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Upon return from the summit, they will combine experience and knowledge from their respective fields to produce a collaborative report integrating environmental, migration, health and governance systems.
We were supposed to sample the regular LTER stations by Zodiac yesterday, but this was the view of Arthur Harbor as of yesterday evening:
No possible way to get a zodiac through all that. We’ll have to wait until the wind comes up (but not too much…) and blows it out. In lieu of our regular sampling routine we made another visit to our ice station. The ice station has been essential this year, and we feel truly lucky to have it. We’ve made only three forays by zodiac to the regular sampling stations, but we’ve made it to the ice station six times. Originally we only planned to visit once or twice.
Scientifically this has the potential to be a real coup. We’ve managed to observe the onset of the spring bloom underneath the ice, in comparison with the delayed onset in open water, and a transition of the under-ice phytoplankton population from potentially mixotrophic cryptophytes to phototrophic diatoms. Today we observed the plot thicken further still. We knew that something was different because our filters were clogging much faster than usual, but we didn’t know what until we got back to the lab.
When we visited the ice station a week ago the phytoplankton community was largely composed of centric diatoms like these:
I spent quite a while on the microscope yesterday evening and couldn’t find a single centric diatom. Or rather I couldn’t find a single live centric diatom. Here’s a typical view from a water sample taken below the ice yesterday.
The large blob in the center of the image is, I’m willing to bet, the remains of one of these diatoms. You can see a stream of cytoplasm trailing off to the right, and the bright area is what remains of the nucleus (the stain used to make the image fluoresces when bound to DNA). They’re difficult to make out in this image, but the stream and the remainder of the cell are heavily colonized by bacteria. While all the centric diatoms died off a number of chain-forming pennate diatoms remained, like the Chaetoceros to the left in this image. So there was some kind of selective mortality. At this stage we have no way of determining the cause, but my guess is a viral attack – the algal equivalent of a flu epidemic. Phytoplankon viruses haven’t received a lot of study as of yet, in large part because of the difficulty in studying them and the complexity of phytoplankton ecology, but they probably play a major role in phytoplankton population dynamics, and by proxy the marine carbon cycle.
Later today we’ll have a sense of how much carbon the bacterial population is taking up as a result of this early collapse of the phytoplankton bloom (how much bacterial production is occurring). My guess is it will be up quite a bit from the last time that we sampled. Phytoplankton are the primary source of food for marine bacteria, and aged or infirm phytoplankton are quickly colonized by marine bacteria that specialize in scavenging these cells. Cell lysis is the final step in this process, and the high quality biomass inside phytoplankton cells can fuel a lot of bacterial production. Bacterial abundance is up and it was likely bacteria, and all the goopy cytoplasm from lysed diatoms, that clogged our filters yesterday.
Macroscopically it was an exciting sampling day as well. The southern elephant seals seem to be abundant this year. No one knows if the numbers are really up, or if they’ve arrived a little earlier than usual, or if they’re just being more sociable than normal, but they’re all over the ice and the station. Usually they don’t take much notice of people, but we attracted the attention of a small (fortunately) one yesterday. On land elephant seals move in 10 m lurching “sprints” with very long rest periods; not the most graceful creatures out of the water. We could see this one making a beeline towards us from a long way off, and had plenty of time to ponder what to do if it tried to join our sampling operation. As it got closer we were relieved to see that it wasn’t a mature bull (which get territorial and can top out at well over 3 tons). We made a line of ski poles and snowshoes, which was enough to deflect its course around us.
Shortly after the elephant seal departed we were joined by the juvenile crabeater seal pictured below, the first of that species that I’ve seen this season (thanks to the birders for clarifying that this was a crabeater and not a leopard seal – despite the predation of the latter on the former the two species are closely related and difficult to tell apart).
If you like pictures of Adélie penguins, and really, who doesn’t, Palmer Station’s seasonal penguin cam is now operational. Check it out to view all the stages in the penguin life cycle in all their glory…
Whenever the focus is on climate change, as it is at this month’s Paris climate conference, tough questions are asked concerning the costs of cutting carbon emissions, the feasibility of transitioning to renewable energy, and whether it’s already too late to do anything about climate change. We posed these questions to Laura Segafredo, manager for the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project. The decarbonization project comprises energy research teams from 16 of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitting countries that are developing concrete strategies to reduce emissions in their countries. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project is an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
- Will the actions we take today be enough to forestall the direst impacts of climate change? Or is it too little too late?
There is still time and room for limiting climate change within the 2˚C limit that scientists consider relatively safe, and that countries endorsed in Copenhagen and Cancun. But clearly the window is closing quickly. I think that the most important message is that we need to start really, really soon, putting the world on a trajectory of stabilizing and reducing emissions. The temperature change has a direct relationship with the cumulative amount of emissions that are in the atmosphere, so the more we keep emitting at the pace that we are emitting today, the more steeply we will have to go on a downward trajectory and the more expensive it will be.
Today we are already experiencing an average change in global temperature of .8˚. With the cumulative amount of emissions that we are going to emit into the atmosphere over the next years, we will easily reach 1.5˚ without even trying to change that trajectory.
Two degrees might still be doable, but it requires significant political will and fast action. And even 2˚ is a significant amount of warming for the planet, and will have consequences in terms of sea level rise, ecosystem changes, possible extinctions of species, displacements of people, diseases, agriculture productivity changes, health related effects and more. But if we can contain global warming within those 2˚, we can manage those effects. I think that’s really the message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports— that’s why the 2˚ limit was chosen, in a sense. It’s a level of warming where we can manage the risks and the consequences. Anything beyond that would be much, much worse.
- Will taking action make our lives better or safer, or will it only make a difference to future generations?
It will make our lives better and safer for sure. For example, let’s think about what it means to replace a coal power plant with a cleaner form of energy like wind or solar. People that live around the coal power plant are going to have a lot less air pollution, which means less asthma for children, and less time wasted because of chronic or acute diseases. In developing countries, you’re talking about potentially millions of lives saved by replacing dirty fossil fuel based power generation with clean energy.
It will also have important consequences for agricultural productivity. There’s a big risk that with the concentration of carbon and other gases in the atmosphere, agricultural yields will be reduced, so preventing that means more food for everyone.
And then think about cities. If you didn’t have all that pollution from cars, we could live in cities that are less noisy, where the air’s much better, and have potentially better transportation. We could live in better buildings where appliances are more efficient. And investing in energy efficiency would basically leave more money in our pockets. So there are a lot of benefits that we can reap almost immediately, and that’s without even considering the biggest benefit—leaving a planet in decent condition for future generations.
- How will measures to cut carbon emissions affect my life in terms of cost?
To build a climate resilient economy, we need to incorporate the three pillars of energy system transformation that we focus on in all the deep decarbonization pathways. Number one is improving energy efficiency in every part of the economy—buildings, what we use inside buildings, appliances, industrial processes, cars…everything you can think of can perform the same service, but using less energy. What that means is that you will have a slight increase in the price in the form of a small investment up front, like insulating your windows or buying a more efficient car, but you will end up saving a lot more money over the life of the equipment in terms of decreased energy costs.
The second pillar is making electricity, the power sector, carbon-free by replacing dirty power generation with clean power sources. That’s clearly going to cost a little money, but those costs are coming down so quickly. In fact there are already a lot of clean technologies that are at cost parity with fossil fuels— for example, onshore wind is already as competitive as gas—and those costs are only coming down in the future. We can also expect that there are going to be newer technologies. But in any event, the fact that we’re going to use less power because of the first pillar should actually make it a wash in terms of cost.
The Australian deep decarbonization teams have estimated that even with the increased costs of cleaner cars, and more efficient equipment for the home, etc., when the power system transitions to where it’s zero carbon, you still have savings on your energy bills compared to the previous situation.
The third pillar that we think about are clean fuels, essentially zero-carbon fuels. So we either need to electrify everything— like cars and heating, once the power sector is free of carbon—or have low-carbon fuels to power things that cannot be electrified, such as airplanes or big trucks. But once you have efficiency, these types of equipment are also more efficient, and you should be spending less money on energy.
Saving money depends on the three pillars together, thinking about all this as a whole system.
- Given that renewable sources provide only a small percentage of our energy and that nuclear power is so expensive, what can we realistically do to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible?
There are a lot of studies that have been done for the U.S. and for Europe that show that it’s very realistic to think of a power sector that is almost entirely powered by renewables by 2050 or so. It’s actually feasible—and this considers all the issues with intermittency, dealing with the networks, and whatever else represents a technological barrier—that’s all included in these studies. There’s also the assumption that energy storage, like batteries, will be cheaper in the future.
That is the future, but 2050 is not that far away. 35 years for an energy transition is not a long time. It’s important that this transition start now with the right policy incentives in place. We need to make sure that cars are more efficient, that buildings are more efficient, that cities are built with more public transit so less fossil fuels are needed to transport people from one place to another.
I don’t want people to think that because we’re looking at 2050, that means that we can wait—in order to be almost carbon free by 2050, or close to that target, we need to act fast and start now.
- Will the remedies to climate change be worse than the disease? Will it drive more people into poverty with higher costs?
I actually think the opposite is true. If we just let climate go the way we are doing today by continuing business as usual, that will drive many people into poverty. There’s a clear relationship between climate change and changing weather patterns, so more significant and frequent extreme weather events, including droughts, will affect the livelihoods of a large portion of the world population. Once you have droughts or significant weather events like extreme precipitation, you tend to see displacements of people, which create conflict, and conflict creates disease.
I think Syria is a good example of the world that we might be going towards if we don’t do anything about climate change. Syria is experiencing a once-in-a-century drought, and there’s a significant amount of desertification going on in those areas, so you’re looking at more and more arid areas. That affects agriculture, so people have moved from the countryside to the cities and that has created a lot of pressure on the cities. The conflict in Syria is very much related to the drought, and the drought can be ascribed to climate change.
And consider the ramifications of the Syrian crisis: the refugee crisis in Europe, terrorism, security concerns and 7 million-plus people displaced. I think that that’s the world that we’re going towards. And in a world like that, when you have to worry about people being safe and alive, you certainly cannot guarantee wealth and better well-being, or education and health.
- So finally, doing what needs to be done to combat climate change all comes down to political will?
The majority of the American public now believe that climate change is real, that it’s human induced and that we should do something about it.
But there’s seems to be a disconnect between what these numbers seem to indicate and what the political discourse is like… I can’t understand it, yet it seems to be the situation.
I’m a little concerned because other more immediate concerns like terrorism and safety always come first. Because the effects of climate change are going to be felt a little further away, people think that we can always put it off. The Department of Defense, its top-level people, have made the connection between climate change and conflict over the next few decades. That’s why I would argue that Syria is actually a really good example to remind us that if we are experiencing security issues today, it’s also because of environmental problems. We cannot ignore them.
The reality is that we need to do something about climate change fast—we don’t have time to fight this over the next 20 years. We have to agree on this soon and move forward and not waste another 10 years debating.
Read the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project 2015 report. The full report will be released December 2.
Laura Segafredo was a senior economist at the ClimateWorks Foundation, where she focused on best practice energy policies and their impact on emission trajectories. She was a lead author of the 2012 UNEP Emissions Gap Report and of the Green Growth in Practice Assessment Report. Before joining ClimateWorks, Segafredo was a research economist at Electricité de France in Paris.
She obtained her Ph.D. in energy studies and her BA in economics from the University of Padova (Italy), and her MSc in economics from the University of Toulouse (France).
The Science, Revisited
Tony Barnston, a scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, took a few hours out of his day and answered questions on a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session.
Here are three questions from his session, but you can visit the full Reddit appearance here. Two more Reddit “Ask Me anything” sessions will be will be announced in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Which short-term effect of climate change do you feel we should be most worried about?
Sea level rise. As the polar ice melts, it adds water to the oceans. Also, a warmer ocean expands upward. We humans continue to build on very low-lying land, which is a mistake. We are short-sighted and give too much weight to short-term profitability.
But sea-level rise is not extremely short-term; it is very slow. But individual sea level events (related to storms or spring tide conditions) will gradually take bigger bites out of our developments in places like Miami, the Pacific islands, etc.
If global warming continues at its non-linear pace, what will be the effect of melting Greenland glaciers on the Gulf Stream over the next 10 years? How will that affect climate in Europe and beyond?
This is complex. The Gulf Stream would continue, but would encounter cooler ice-melt water near Greenland. The effect on the Gulf Stream’s trajectory toward Europe is not easy to answer, and would require a comprehensive research project. But part of the Gulf Stream would probably still make it to Europe unimpeded.
Even though climate change will play out over a long time frame, the intensely negative implications of human impact and ramifications of a shifting climate will be extreme. How do you maintain a positive outlook when all predictions point down the drain?
Although many predictions do point down the drain, not all of them do. There is a large amount of uncertainty in these long-term climate projections. So, my outlook is uncertain. It is not in any definite direction yet. While there is no doubt in my mind that climate change is occurring, and that it is affecting human welfare, there is much uncertainty about the rate of climate change.
The Science, Revisited
Although scientists have known for some time the role that ice had in shaping the landscape, still many questions have been left unanswered. In the last few decades, new techniques have allowed scientists to date the original remnants in the landscape. With this new data, scientists can track back what glaciers did in the past, and how it is related to climate change. This provides a link to predict what could be happening in the next 100, 200, 500 years.
In the above video produced by the American Museum of Natural History, a professional film crew follows the scientists from New Zealand to the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s geochemistry lab in Palisades, N.Y., to show how the process works.
In the coming weeks leading up to 2015 Paris Climate Summit we will be looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. Visit the full article here and stay tuned for more posts about climate science.
The Science, Revisited
Climate scientists continue to look to the role that greenhouse gases, specifically C02 play in the climate system. CO2 molecules in the atmosphere absorb heat (infrared radiation) coming from the Earth’s surface and then re-radiate some of that heat back to the surface to generate a warming effect.
In this past State of the Planet article, Kelsey Dyez, a geochemist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, describes how the carbon dioxide (CO2) content of the atmosphere influences climate. Kelsey describes this process while also explaining the significance past climate research has in understanding our world today.
In the coming weeks leading up to 2015 Paris Climate Summit we will be looking back at some key State of the Planet stories about climate science. We hope to help readers better understand the science and its consequences. Stay tuned for more.
We gained two more members to our team this week; Conor Sullivan, a field technician with the Ducklow group at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and Ribanna Dietrich, a graduate student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. After dropping them off (along with a massive quantity of cargo) the Gould made a fast departure to start a four-week research cruise to study fjord processes along the West Antarctic Peninsula. Fjords are a major feature of the coastline, but haven’t received a lot of study due to the difficulty of safe access and the limited available resources. When the Gould comes back around it will be time for Jamie Collins and I to return to Punta Arenas.
Now that we have a full team it’s time to ramp up our sampling schedule. We’ve been pretty busy so far; in addition to our ice removal experiment we’ve already made it out to the regular Palmer LTER sampling sites by zodiac a couple of times. This three minute video, taken on the nicest day anyone on the team can remember having in Antarctica, highlights some of the challenges of conducting a full oceanographic sampling program from a 19 foot zodiac.
Unfortunately most days this season have looked nothing like the day in the video. As Jamie discusses in his blog here, the winds have been unusually strong this year. That’s kept the phytoplankton bloom from developing and mostly kept us on shore (boating operations shut down when the wind reaches 20 knots).
Contrary to all expectations however, the strong winds this season haven’t broken up the land fast ice in Arthur Harbor. Over a week ago I reported on our “last” visit to our ice station. With the ice in good shape we were able to make another sampling foray yesterday. I’m glad that we did, because a diatom bloom is starting to develop under the ice! The exciting thing about that is that it’s exactly what we would expect to find. The sea ice stabilizes the water column and keeps the diatoms from getting mixed too deep. For many years researchers, relying primarily on satellite observations of chlorophyll a in the surface ocean, have hypothesized that the presence of sea ice plays an important role in high latitude phytoplankton bloom formation. Direct observations of this however, are sparse. This year, purely by chance, we’ve got the opportunity to observe a well-stabilized water column underneath sea ice adjacent to a highly mixed water column in open water.
Leading up to the UN Conference on Climate Change this month in Paris, the Earth Institute is posting daily photos and videos from experts working in the field of climate science. Also, look for Magnum photo service pictures on the site every Monday. Follow @earthinstitute on Instagram for daily updates.
The project is several weeks in and with each new line of data we celebrate the collection and then dig into it to see what we can learn. The map is growing, filling in with the 20 km flights designed to provide a framework for the 10 km flights that would fill in the gaps during our next field season. However, already in some instances the team has tightened their grid lines to 10 kms, taking advantage of opportunities in the weather or the inability to collect a line over another part of the shelf.
(Above is a video of the retraction of the IcePod arm as the plane flies over the Ross Sea Polynya (open water set in the middle of the sea ice). During data collection the pod is lowered and then retracted upon completion. Video by Dave Porter.)
The latest team celebration is around the magnetometer data. Magnetics is used to understand the make up of Earth’s crust. The end goal is to calculate the anomaly or unique magnetic signal from the geology in an area after separating out all the other magnetic ‘interference’ to better understand the formation of this area of Antarctica. The Earth’s magnetic signature varies by location so a base station is set up in order to collect a background magnetic level for the area. During data collection the base station will be used to determine anticipated magnetic levels for the region.
In data processing the local signal is corrected for and small spikes from the aircraft that the instrument is mounted to will be removed. This means that each magnetic survey includes a magnetic compensation flight at high elevation so that the magnetic signature of the plane can be identified. A model is then developed to separate the signal of the plane from that of the geology. The magnetic compensation flight includes flying in all four cardinal directions – check the annotated flight track image above to see a recording of these flight lines.
The compensation flight also includes 3 repeat pitch-roll-yaw moves. Pitch includes tipping the wings side to side, roll is moving the nose and tail down and then up and yaw is a rotating or twisting of the plane left and then right. Thanks to New York Air National Guard loadmaster Nick O’Neil we have a video of the pitch and roll pieces of this compensation flight. Note the video is sped up to show 2 minutes of filming in 17 seconds so hold onto your seats! Be sure to note how the vapor contrail of the plane tracks the serpentine movement of the flight pattern during the rolls!
For the magnetics the flight line selected was one that has been flown previously by the NASA IceBridge program. Duplicating flights between different projects provides an opportunity to test and validate equipment. From the onset collecting magnetics data from the LC130 with the IcePod system was considered challenging. The compact nature of the instruments and all the metal surrounding them made this a real test, however, the resulting first unprocessed flight line (below) shows that the shape of the two lines agree! The alignment will only improve with processing against the base station. This is a significant achievement given the very compact environment of the instruments in IcePod – cause for celebration!
The magnetic image shows the signature of this area of Antarctic geology in clear detail. Flying away from McMurdo the Transantarctic Mountains are on the left side of the dataset. The flight moves towards the highly magnetized volcanic environment of Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica on the far right. Note the elevated magnetics on the right form the volcanic rock. A magnetic high is also visible in the center, yet on the left side the Transantarctic Mountains show no sign of high magnetism. This is not surprising as this mountain range that stretches mainly north to south across Antarctica, was formed from uplift beginning about 65 million years ago, and is composed of sedimentary layers of rock overlying granites and gneisses.
Magnetics has evolved quite a bit over the years of geophysical sampling. Lamont scientist Robin Bell recalls when in the 1990s when she worked on a project mapping a active subglacial volcanism in West Antarctica that the magnetometer was towed on a winch ~100 meters behind the aircraft. If the wiring got caught up in the tail section it was cut lose and the instrument was lost. More recent work has located the instrument in the tail of the plane (as in the P3 bombers of World War II) and on the tips of the wings of the plane as was the case during the 2008 AGAP work in East Antarctica mapping the subglacial Gamburtsev Mountains. The IcePod model of placing the magnetics so close to the radar has not been done before.
Check out the newest lines on the GIS map and stop back for more.
For more about this NSF- and Moore Foundation-funded project, check our project website: ROSSETTA.
Margie Turrin is blogging for the IcePod team while they are in the field.
There are actually a few reasons to be just a little bit optimistic about the possibility of a good outcome from COP21, apart from the fact that it is being held in one of the world’s loveliest cities.
Perhaps most important is that the pope is paying attention, and a lot of people pay attention to what the pope pays attention to. That includes people like me who are not Catholic and don’t really believe the pope has speed-dial access to the word of God. I am sure he has better access than I do. I can’t seem to get hold of The Lord at all these days. So it is worth listening to the pope and, incredible as it might sound, the pope is actually saying the right things on this issue and, of course, we have no obligation to listen to him on anything else.
The second isn’t so much about COP21, but I have not lost faith that climate may be less sensitive to our actions than most scientists think it is. There might be a huge negative feedback hidden somewhere that will counteract all the efforts we are making to try to change climate for the worst. The climate system may turn out to be sort of dull and unresponsive. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I need to hold onto some hopes.
And no matter what changes happen, they will happen fairly slowly, much more slowly than the outbreak of war, plague or pestilence. Society is pretty slow, dull and unresponsive, too, so that doesn’t help, but things will change slowly, and that gives us time. The time should be available for us to create the huge negative feedback ourselves to counteract what we have done, just in case Nature doesn’t have one hidden. COP21 should be able to buy us the time we need to engineer the feedback.
But more than that, I don’t believe for a second that we are on the brink of global destruction. We are on the brink of a global re-distribution and whole scale re-balancing of global goods and bads. But we have been there before and survived. Our planet will be a very different place, no doubt, but it will still be here and so will we, in some form, maybe not recognizable to us now. I don’t know how we will survive, but I am optimistic that we will.
I do know we will not be rescued by constantly repeating words like vulnerability, sustainability and resilience to one another, and I am optimistic that that phase will pass and we can start to think seriously about our new world. COP21 might just help us start that thinking.
Mutter was among Earth Institute contributors writing about the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Here’s some of what he had to say in a question and answer session back then (you can see all of his comments in 2009 here):
Is the world ready to meet a CO2 target—any target?
Probably not; we need to make big investments in technology. The lifestyle changes that we have made to feel better about ourselves don’t amount to much. I’m not sure driving silent, ugly cars is going to help in the way people think they will. …
What would you most like to see happen at Copenhagen?
A serious discussion about adaptation: What we are going to do for [low-lying islands like] the Maldives and climate change refugees? Normally, refugees are people who have been displaced by somebody else—persecuted. One of the obligations we have to refugees is to repatriate them to where they came from. But if where they came from is under water? We don’t have language to describe the international community’s obligation for people persecuted by climate.
What will it take to get people to act?
If people see countries going under water, the spread of conflict in the drylands of Africa, with implications beyond, and people displaced from their homes, we will do something. We’re altruistic as a species. It calls on our core beliefs. We can ignore polar bears and still go to heaven, but we can’t ignore people.
Antarctica holds about 27 million cubic kilometers of ice that is constantly flowing, pushed by its own weight and pulled by gravity. If just part of that ice – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet – were to melt into the ocean, it would raise global sea level by 6 meters. That’s more than a theoretical problem. West Antarctica is losing ice mass, and scientists are worried.
Warming air temperatures and warming water both play a role. So does geography.
“As our planet warms, the polar regions are warming faster than anywhere else on our planet and the ice sheets are changing. They’re melting and they’re sliding faster toward the ocean. Global sea level is going up, and we expect that to go up faster as more of the ice melts,” said Robin Bell, a glacialogist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who is leading the Changing Ice, Changing Coastlines Initiative with paleoclimatologist Maureen Raymo.
To understand how a massive ice sheet can become destabilized, we need to understand the structure of the land that holds the ice on Antarctica today.
Bell and her colleagues engineered a way to do that in some of the most remote regions on the planet. They took radar and other technology normally used to study the sea floor and attached it to a C-130 cargo plane in a capsule called the IcePod. By flying over the ice sheets – as they’re doing right now over Antarctica’s giant Ross Ice Shelf – they can see where the ice enters the ocean and map the ice layers and the terrain hidden beneath it.
Ice shelves, like Ross, are particularly important to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet’s stability. They jut out over the water ahead of flowing glaciers and slow the glaciers’ flow into the ocean. The biggest threat to ice shelves is warmer water brought in by ocean currents that flows low along the continental shelf and eat away at the base of the ice shelf. This line where ice, water and rock meet is called the grounding line. As the ice erodes, the grounding line moves inland, and geography comes into play: In West Antarctica, most ice shelves are on slopes that slant inward toward the center of the continent. As the grounding line moves inland and into deeper water, the ice shelf becomes unstable and can break apart.
After the Larson B Ice Shelf broke off from Antarctica and disappeared over the span of a few weeks in 2002, the glaciers it held back started flowing at eight times their previous speed. It was a wake-up call, as Bell explains in the video above.
The Ross Ice Shelf is much larger than Larson B and is an outlet for several major glaciers from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And it’s only one area of West Antarctica that has scientists concerned.
To the west of the Ross Ice Shelf, on the Amundsen Sea, scientists see evidence that the massive Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers are also moving faster as their grounding lines recede. At the Pine Island Glacier, the grounding line receded about 31 kilometers between 1992 and 2011, contributing to the glacier’s increasing speed and ice loss starting around 2002. One recent study used computer modeling to look at what might happen and suggests that if the Amundsen Sea glaciers were destabilized, a large part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would discharge into the ocean. Another study found that the rate of thinning in West Antarctic ice shelves had increased 70 percent over the past decade based on satellite data, and some ice shelves lost as much as 18 percent of their volume between 1994 and 2012. (To learn more about changing ice sheets, look for the Polar Explorer app being released by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory this fall.)
These and other findings led the National Academies of Sciences to issue a recommendation this summer that the U.S. Antarctic Program at the National Science Foundation make changing ice sheets and their contribution to sea level rise one of its top research goals for the next 10 years, particularly in West Antarctica. The fate of the ice sheets has a direct impact on humanity: as land-based ice melts, it raises sea level, and that can threaten coastal communities and economies worldwide.
“Our planet’s large ice sheets contain secrets that will be uncovered by studies of the changing ice and changing coastlines,” Bell said. “New expeditions to poles to decode how they work what makes them flow deform and melt while new studies of ancient shoreline will inform how fast the change occurred in the past. We envision a new phase of exploration and discovery to inform our future.”
Learn more about West Antarctica and the impact of rising temperatures on marine life, part of a video series.