Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been studying the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets for years, and candidly casts doubt on global efforts to slow the melt. He discusses some potential (and alarming) scenarios, but reserves hope that younger generations will bring about positive action.
I wonder if you could start off by telling us a little about your role at NASA and what it entails?
My role at NASA is to collect research about ice sheet mass balance. The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are being lost to the ocean and we are trying to find out what the physical processes… controlling this are… We are using a suite of satellite instruments and airborne platforms with sophisticated technologies to measure with precision what the ice sheets are doing over time.
How long has this research been going on?
The polar programme started to focus on Greenland in the early 1990s, when we started to fly airborne lasers [there], and it has been growing into large experiments, including satellite missions, over time.
You express uncertainty about our ability to slow global warming, and the related loss of the world’s ice sheets. Do you think humanity is facing a real doomsday scenario?
I would not like to call it ‘doomsday’. [My research] is all really to check on how fast we are losing ice in the polar regions. What the last twenty-plus years of research have shown is that the polar regions are reacting to climate change in a much stronger way, much sooner than what was expected. In a sense, if we say that the ice sheets collapse in the next decade… some of the processes that are in place contributing to this mass loss are going to continue acting for centuries. So we have to keep the long term perspective… and not just think about what it’s going to be like tomorrow, to see what this means for the coming centuries.
That raises the question of the sorts of effects that humanity can expect as sea levels and temperatures rise and we lose that ice mass.
There are two aspects to this. One is the loss of the sea ice in the Arctic… It is going to change the Arctic drastically, exemplifying climate warming at high altitudes. The other is the melting of the glaciers around the ice sheets, affecting [only] a few areas in the Antarctic, [but] the entire ice mass of Greenland in the north. This is contributing to progressive sea level rise. The sea level is rising only a few millimetres per year at present… but two thirds of that is due to melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica [and] also ice caps.
What we have to realise is that this is just the beginning of a longterm trail, where the sea level is going to keep rising faster with time as more ice starts to melt over large areas. Right now we are going to reach a one metre rise by the end of the century and unfortunately there is no simple way we can push the stop button. It will keep rising beyond 2100. If we want to think about adaptation strategies to protect ourselves from sea level rise, we have to plan for this now, for the next 30 to 40 years… An additional complication is that the sea level is not rising uniformly: it is rising fast in some places and slowly in others. You have to look at the… context.
The other issue that’s going to confront populations in general, but also tourism industries, is the loss of alpine environments.
These issues are separate from sea level rise and are directly connected to the loss of alpine glaciers. This loss has a direct effect on the local hydrology. The melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica is not going to affect fresh water resources for anyone except in Greenland… In the Alps, in New Zealand, in India, in South America, the progressive disappearance of glaciers and ice caps will affect access to fresh water resources… With the glaciers gone, you only have water when it rains or if it is stored in lakes and reservoirs; the glaciers will no longer provide a regular source of fresh water year round.
Your work has clearly carried you to some interesting, awe-inspiring, and even dangerous environments. The process of watching many of those alpine and aquatic environments change, and disappear before your eyes, must be, at times, pretty disheartening.
It is disheartening, because it is beyond our hands to protect those ice masses, although there are some examples [where people are trying]: I know recently in Argentina they passed some laws to protect access to glaciers, in order to protect them from overuse by mining companies… I think that is an interesting initiative: passing some laws that would protect our glacial environments from climate warming; anything that is done against that should be penalised. It’s an important resource right. We protect our water resources, we protect our shorelines — [so] we should have some ways to protect our glaciers and ice caps, which are our long term water reservoirs. And the biggest threat to these is climate warming.
There are tourism businesses now starting to use climate warming as a marketing tactic: advising people to go and see places ‘before they disappear’. This raises a bit of an ethical issue.
I would [be in] favour [of] tourism to look at these natural entities. Of course, you would not necessarily want to encourage mass tourism, especially in places like the Antarctic. But… for people to be a little more familiar with these issues, going to visit places like Alaska or Greenland… [or] the alpine glaciers, brings some connection between nature and people… If more tourists did that… I think they would connect with issues a little bit better. They would appreciate for themselves, also, some of the changes as a result of climate warming. They might always have a little doubt about some of these issues when they hear about them in the media or in the press. Even if you listen to some esteemed scientist… it is quite a different thing to see it for yourself, to go to some place where ice is retreating very fast, and see it with your own eyes.
Your own studies have found that the glacial melt from West Antarctica into the Amundsen Sea and from Greenland appears to be unstoppable. Do you think there is any way of mitigating or slowing these effects? Geoengineering perhaps?
Geoengineering… makes me smile because I think we are far from having a solution that could scale up to the problem. There is good intent behind it, but it is another thing to come up with solutions that can be operated on a grand scale. There are some physical processes that take place in the polar regions which might slow down the decay of ice sheets, [but] there are a lot of things we still do not know.
The most obvious and immediate thing is to appreciate that climate warming is occurring too fast. It’s producing changes on a global scale that are too rapid for us to have enough time to adapt — so the most important thing to do is to slow down the rate at which we are warming the climate. That means going to natural resources, that means going for solar energy, migrating as soon as we can to a zero carbon economy. I really think that the technology is there to enable this, but it is a tremendous shift in the way we live.
There has been a lot of comment about a temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius as a safe temperature threshold, while 6 degrees is seen as the ‘death zone’ for humanity. We are already on the verge of reaching one degree above preindustrial temperature levels. Do you think there is a safe threshold?
I think the 2 degree limit is a threshold that has been set up mostly by politicians out of thin air, just so that we can find some sort of target down the line that we can refer to. There are numerous reasons … that 2 degrees… is not a safe goal. To put it into perspective, the carbon concentration in the atmosphere has been varying between 180ppm and 280ppm over ice ages. We are at 400… already, way outside the range of natural variation to concentration over the past million years.
With 2 degrees there is evidence that parts of Greenland and parts of Antarctica [will not be] stable. They will eventually melt down. Studies dating back to 125,000 years ago [show] climate was about 12 degrees above preindustrial temperatures, so pretty much along with this target you just mentioned — and sea level was 6 to 9 metres higher than today. This means that part of Greenland was gone, parts of east Antarctica and west Antarctica were gone as well. So I wouldn’t call that a safe limit.
To think that we would lock ourselves into a climate where sea level will eventually rise by 6 to 9 metres, that would displace hundreds of millions of people and cost billions in moving infrastructures, not to mention immigration problems. Well-developed countries can more easily adapt: they have the technologies, they can move their industries. In some other countries, they cannot afford to do that: people would have to move away… And that creates, as you can see in Europe right now, tremendous problems that affect everybody, not just the people moving out of their country.
UC Irvine glaciologists muscle away icebergs from delicate and expensive sonar equipment used to map remote Greenland fiord bottoms for the first time. Photo by Maria Stenzel for UC Irvine
Do you think the general public actually understand what contributes to climate change and what they can do to help?
I think it is a little bit in human nature, that even if we are aware of some of the wrong doing and some of the problems, it takes a big slap in the face before you decide, “Hey, we have to move on and do something different here.” Look, I would be the first one to blame myself. We complain about carbon dioxide emissions, but I still drive my car around. I still haven’t changed fundamentally my way of living. I haven’t put solar panels in my house, even though I have been talking about that with my wife for a number of years now. There is a natural inertia in all of us [with regards to] changing the way we live in a significant way. Fortunately, when people have the courage to do that, they always find something better on the other side. I really think that the world will be much better off if we move from burning fossil fuel to using solar energy — stating the obvious there.
Another problem is that in order for that change to occur, it is pretty clear that we need some strong federal incentive… Sometimes I compare this situation to reducing the speed limit on a freeway. If somebody tells you that the speed limit on the freeway is 50 miles per hour, but you like to drive fast, you’re going to drive 100 miles per hour because it is more fun. But if you get a ticket for that, you will respect the speed limit and drive like everybody else, no more than 50 miles an hour. Right now, there is no ticket for carbon emissions. You can burn as much as you want and put it in the atmosphere. As a result, it’s sort of easy to continue living in that mode.
In your Climate Change Elevator Pitch video, produced with blogger Peter Sinclair, you said that the power to change where we are headed lies in the hands of the young generation. What do you think the youth of today can do to actively change what looks like a rather dismal future?
It is very hard to change the establishment because it is difficult for the older people to change the way they live. It is much easier for younger minds to try to aspire to something a little bit different. We live in an era where the young generation have much more economic power than ever before, so you find yourselves with young entrepreneurs in their late twenties or early thirties at the head of major companies, with billions of dollars that they can invest in research and… a desire to change the way we live. They can actually have a big impact on that.
A number of these want to change the world and are working actively to do that. I don’t know if you saw the announcement earlier this year by Elon Musk, the owner of Tesla. He is going to sell these batteries for individual homes — he is the head of SolarCity. The solar solutions that he proposed to these problems can actually operate on a grand scale. He might be one of the people on the planet who is going to come up with a solution and actually do it. He is a very young guy. He comes out of nowhere and he might be starting a revolution.
The contrast to that is a study Harvard University undertook about ten years ago — they were concerned about the intergenerational response to climate change, so they decided to look at how people respond to more immediate threats. They looked at people’s behavioural response to heart attacks and found that most people change their habits for about six months and then revert to past behaviour.
We cannot be so pessimistic. I think eventually good will prevail. My point about the younger generation is that I see stronger advocacy and stronger will to actually do something in the younger generation. These people, their minds are more adaptable to change. In fact, they may desire change as generational aspiration: “We want to do something different [from] our parents… we want to live in a world that doesn’t burn fossil fuel.” And they are absolutely right, it is going to be a better world.
A film by Thomas Seear-Budd & Talia Carlisle
Sermersuaq is Greenland’s ice sheet, the second largest body of ice in the world after the Antarctic ice sheet. When viewed from above, Sermersuaq dominates Greenland’s vast and rocky landscape. But at its melting edges, the ice is weak. It creaks and groans like an old man, the lamenting sound of rushing channels caused by melt water reverberating in the still air.
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