Are We Headed for Another Ice Age?
A huge crack threatens to leave a chunk of ice the size of Delaware floating off from Antarctica. It’s a fascinating development. But it’s not necessarily a “climate change” phenomenon.
“The whole damn shelf is breaking off!”
That’s one of the signature lines from Roland Emmerich’s outlandish 2004 climate change disaster epic The Day After Tomorrow.
A team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration watches as a massive fissure splits the Larsen Ice Shelf, creating a chunk “the size of Rhode Island,” about 1,200 square miles.
It’s the first in a catastrophic series of events that leaves the Northern Hemisphere in another ice age.
Well, life appears to be imitating art in Antarctica — times two.
A 90-mile crack estimated to be a third of a mile deep and as wide as a 25-lane highway has opened up on Larsen C. It could break off a 2,400-square-mile chunk — about the size of Delaware.
It’s already shut down work at the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI research station.
Good news, though: Buoys in the North Atlantic aren’t showing simultaneous and rapid declines in ocean temperatures, and there are no tornadoes ravaging Los Angeles.
We’re not, as silver-screen paleoclimatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) warns, on the verge of a “major climate shift.”
|Well, life appears to be imitating art in Antarctica — times two.|
Indeed, as NPR’s Rae Ellen Bichell, reports: Larsen C’s crack is only tangentially related to global warming.
“It’s more complicated,” Bichell writes:
“A lot of things are going on deep inside the ice,” says Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist at Swansea University in the U.K. He’s also leading a project to track changes in the ice shelf.
Luckman says climate change is certainly influencing this region. Larsen C used to have two neighbors to the north, Larsen A and Larsen B. As the air and water warmed, those ice shelves started melting and then splintered into shards in 1995 and 2002.
But the crack in Larsen C seems to have happened on its own, for different reasons.
“This is probably not directly attributable to any warming in the region, although, of course, the warming won’t have helped,” says Luckman. “It’s probably just simply a natural event that’s just been waiting around to happen.”
“Calving” is actually a natural phenomenon that creates icebergs. There’s no immediate reason to be alarmed by the crack in Larsen C.
At the same time, the longer-term picture isn’t so clear. That’s according to Ala Khazendar, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who outlines for Bichell “two possible scenarios”:
One, the iceberg will break off, he says, “and nothing spectacular will happen for many, many years.” The glaciers will bulk it up with ice until it’s back to its former look. Or two, this iceberg is just the first of many irreversible losses for Larsen C, which, in combination with enough warm summers, will be weakened and shatter like the previous Larsens.
So it only appears as if we’re seeing Emmerich’s vision play out in real life.
|“‘Calving’ is actually a natural phenomenon that creates icebergs. There’s no immediate reason to be alarmed by the crack in Larsen C.”|
That’s not to say, however, that the threat isn’t real. A recent paper to address the topic of scientific consensus and anthropogenic climate change concludes:
The number of papers rejecting AGW [asnthropogenic, or human-caused, global warming] is a miniscule proportion of the published research, with the percentage slightly decreasing over time. Among papers expressing a position on AGW, an overwhelming percentage (97.2% based on self-ratings, 97.1% based on abstract ratings) endorses the scientific consensus on AGW.
But the opportunity is equally real. As we noted in the August 17, 2016, issue of Wall Street Daily:
According to a report prepared by Morgan Stanley, The Investor’s Guide to Climate Change, a recent global investor survey found that 81% of asset owners and 68% of asset managers viewed climate change as “a material risk or opportunity across their entire investment portfolio.”
And The Economist Intelligence Unit has estimated “that private investors are at risk of losing $4.2 trillion between now and the turn of the next century because of a warming planet.”
Meanwhile, according to Bloomberg Business, investors with nearly $800 billion in assets have shifted money into more climate-friendly investments such as wind and solar energy.
That shift to cleaner-burning fuels, including natural gas as well as renewables, is accelerating. And market forces are playing a big role in the change.
In its January 10, 2017, Today in Energy report, the U.S. Energy Information Administration forecast that 24 gigawatts (24,000 megawatts) of new generating capacity was added to the electric power grid in 2016.
“For the third consecutive year,” the EIA reports, “more than half of these additions are renewable technologies, especially wind and solar.”
New utility-scale renewable generation capacity has risen steadily over the past three years, from 40% of new installations in 2013 to 66% in 2015.
Meanwhile, total U.S. coal production was down 18% in 2016, the lowest output since 1978. As the EIA notes, “The decline in coal production in 2016 would be the largest annual decline in terms of both tons and percentage based on data going back to 1949.”
|“The need for more compact, more flexible, larger-scale, less costly electricity storage is self-evident,” Smil notes. “But the miracle has been slow in coming.”|
Coal burned to produce electricity (which accounts for 90% of all coal consumption) declined by 8% last year, due to the combination of cheaper natural gas and mild temperatures in the first half of the year.
Natural gas-fired power generation (34%) surpassed coal-fired generation (30%) for the first time in 2016. The EIA forecast that utilities will have burned 681 million short tons in 2016, the lowest level since 1985.
The EIA expects coal consumption to rise by 6% in 2017 but resume its decline in 2018, to the tune of 1%.
While renewable capacity continues to increase as a share of overall electric-power capacity, renewable generation growth remains slower because wind and solar are “nondispatchable,” meaning they can’t be switched on or off according to fluctuating customer needs.
We’re still working on battery technology that will support storage to cover “gaps in the flow of that energy,” as Vaclav Smil writes for IEEE Spectrum.
“The need for more compact, more flexible, larger-scale, less costly electricity storage is self-evident,” Smil notes. “But the miracle has been slow in coming.”
Editorial Director, Wall Street Daily