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Arctic ice melt: the most profound example of climate change

image: Mike Beauregard (subarcticmike, flickr)

On Monday night, the Vancouver Aquarium hosted a public lecture by John Englander, the author of the recent climate change book High Tide on Main Street – Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis.

Englander has an engaging way of talking about climate change without actually talking about climate change in the politicised way that encourages climate deniers to get shouty.

So while he had nothing to say that was new to climate change-hardened me, it was still an engaging talk. He lays out the facts about melting ice caps and sea level rise in a very matter of fact manner, complemented by photographs he’s taken over his oceanography career.

This allows for the things he tells everyone to be tangible, something a lot of climate change discussion can lack. It’s very easy for me to tell you that the Arctic is melting and will likely be ice free either this summer or in a few years time.

However, it’s another thing for you to hear that accompanied with a photo from underneath the Arctic ice cap where we can see that the ice is three metres thick. And it’s another thing again when Englander tells us that in the 1970s, when he was at university, it was considered impossible that the Arctic could melt within our lifetimes, and yet, all of the three metre thick ice in his photo is gone now.

Thick sea ice is almost all gone in the Arctic.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Ted Scambos and Rob Bauer, NSIDC

Seeing that image and then hearing Englander talk simply about melting ice and sea levels, allows him to focus on one visceral aspect of how our planet is rapidly changing.

As he said at the talk, for him, the melting of the Arctic is the most profound example of climate change we have. You can see it and measure it in short time spans – you can point to the ice wherever it was and compare the photos – it was here, now it’s not. These things are not something you can logic away as many people do when talking about greenhouse gas emissions. The ice was there for three million years and now it’s almost all gone. Something very undeniably fundamental has changed.

Muir Glacier, located in Glacier Bay, Alaska, photographed by W. Field in Aug. 1941 (left) and B. Molnia in Sep. 1976 (middle) and Aug. 2004 (right). Courtesy National Snow and Ice Data Center, Glacier Photo Collection

So what are we going to do about sea level rise? It’s happening and will continue to happen for the next several hundred years as Greenland and Antarctica continue to slowly melt to their ancient cores.

The really good news about sea level rise (if there is such a thing) is that it’s a slow enough process to be reasonably predictable. As long as the West Antarctic ice sheet doesn’t suddenly drop into the ocean all at once to become a giant slushy of sea level rise, we know it will continue to rise at, or somewhere above 3mm/year.

That rate is increasing, but while we’re still talking millimetres, there’s still time to prepare and plan. It could mean (as Fast Company last week predicted) that the wealthy and mobile will simply move inland to create new cities in the climate change real estate boom.

Everyone will deal with the issue in different ways ranging from quietly moving out before your property values drop, or holding on until the day before your home gets washed away, as Englander described happening on Holland Island in Chesapeake Bay in his book.

So while we may continue to argue about the costs of climate change and who should pay them and the effects of one policy vs another policy, the sea will slowly keep rising. The storm surges will get higher, low lying suburbs will be inundated, and the forward thinkers will have time to be proactive about it. 

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