Archive for the ‘Antarctica’ Category

Years or Centuries?

Via Wikimedia Commons

Via Wikimedia Commons

We’ve all heard enough predictions about the long-term consequences of global climate change to make us want to cover our ears and run screaming from the room. Most of the warnings (which are issued with depressing regularity) concern effects taking place over many decades, even centuries. In comparison to geological time, we are like mayflies – our human perception of time makes it difficult to extrapolate threats that extend beyond our own lifetimes or that of our children or grandchildren. The time lag laid out in many of the analyses of climate change in is one of the principal challenges in corralling the political will to mitigate humanity’s impact on the environment.

Last week the National Academy of Sciences issued a lengthy report on the changes which may visit us suddenly, in a matter of years. The study, sponsored in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. intelligence community, warns of large and abrupt changes in the physical climate system brought on by suddenly and unexpected  tipping points. In addition to gradual, incremental changes in the environment, the report warns against abrupt ecological or socio-economic disruption as environmental conditions accelerate unpredictably. The report notes that we don’t yet know what the thresholds for such rapid changes are, and calls for a kind of early warning system composed of more vigilant monitoring of key species and environments, including the use of satellites, data collection, model testing and improvement, and model predictions that suggest future data needs. Alluding to early maps of the America’s which carried the warning, “Here be dragons”, the report details a number of possible rapidly-escalating threats, and lays out a map of its own showing how to avoid modern day dragons.

One of the studies co-authors, Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the prospect of abrupt climate change to avoiding the dangers of a drunk driver on the road. “You can’t see it coming, so you can’t prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs. If you see the drunk driver coming, you can get out of the way.”

The report’s good news, such as it is, is that some potential threats don’t appear to be quite as imminent as once thought, as long as you don’t think 100 years is imminent: the precipitous release of underwater or frozen methane (a potent climate-altering gas) or a shutdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation patterns (which could plunge Europe into a mini ice age) don’t appear to be in the cards in this century.

You can read the whole report as an interactive PDF here.

Revising the Antarctic Anomaly

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Well, this is certainly intriguing! The big news in the environmental sphere this week seems to be the unexpected growth of Antarctic sea ice in 2012, an anomaly that NBC News calls a “global warming paradox.” Around here, we’re used to alarming news about the rapid decrease in Arctic sea ice. Heck, we’ve even seen reports that Arctic sea ice could be gone by the summer of 2016, if current trends continue. The Antarctic paradox, then, seems to be that though we’re nowhere near being out of hot water (pun intended) on the warming oceans front, the mass of Antarctic sea ice (where sea ice tends to be more scattered and mobile) seems to have grown to the massive size of 7.51 million square miles, the largest area of sea ice ever recorded in this region.

So… what’s the deal? According to National Geographic, the explanation has something to do with melting ice shelves. Where once the dominant theories on the subject pointed to heavier snowfall in the area brought on by warmer, moister air (which would in turn create heavier snowfalls that would reduce the saline levels in the top layers of the ocean, making them more stable), the scientists behind a new study are pointing to massive ice shelves that surround the continent melting down in higher temperatures, which creates a stream of fresh water flowing into the surface layer of the Southern Ocean and (as in the “more snow” theory) protecting the ice shelves from the warmer waters beneath.

However, this newest theory doesn’t seem to be definitive just yet. Other plausible explanations indict wind patterns as the culprit, while others say it could be a combination of all three factors (warmer air temperatures, wind factors, and melting ice shelves). I guess we’ll just wait and see?

Obama Taps REI CEO for Secretary of the Interior

You may recall our recent coverage of the departure announcement of Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar. On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced its choice for his replacement – Sally Jewell, CEO of Recreational Equipment, Inc.  While Jewell has never held a government position before, she has previously worked in both the oil industry (as a petroleum engineer for Mobil) and the financial industry (as a commercial banker with Washington Mutual). So Beltway insiders who want to question her credentials will have to choose their words carefully, especailly since she is the first woman nominated for a Cabinet position this term. Of course, Jewell will still have to be confirmed by the Senate, but after climbing mountains in Antarctica, the confirmation hearings will probably seem like a walk in the national park.

Halley VI, Antarctic Futuremobile, Opens This Week

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Big news for explorers and Antarctic architects alike, as we celebrate the completion and grand opening of the British Antarctic Survey’s Halley VI Antarctic research facility this week. The Halley VI replaces its 20 year old predecessor, the Halley V, and is the sixth Halley station to be built on the unstable, floating Brunt Ice Shelf. The Ice Shelf is essentially huge panes of ice that have loosed themselves from the continent itself. The first four Halley’s were either buried in snow or abandoned, as the conditions in the wilderness are unpredictable, as are the movements of the Ice Shelf itself. The challenge, explains architect Hugh Broughton in this informative BBC news video, was to keep the Halley VI from reaching a similar fate.

The building team rose to the challenge by making Halley VI mobile, both vertically and horizontally. The facility is composed of eight modules, each 160 square meters across, that are strung together like a train. These modules are supported on hydraulic legs, which allow the modules to move vertically, and the legs themselves end in giant steel skis, which allow the modules to move horizontally. The team stripped each module into parts to transport them across the ice, then put them back together once on the ice shelf.

More on Halley VI at Gizmodo and Treehugger.

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