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Science: The Melting Ice Caps

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Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2007; 11:00 AM

Washington Post staff writer Doug Struck was online Monday, Oct. 22 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss his article, At the Poles, Melting Occurring at Alarming Rate, which looks at the impact of climate change in the arctic regions, and how the melting of the ice caps impacts our climate.

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This discussion is part of the monthly series In the Greenhouse: Confronting a Changing Climate.

The transcript follows.

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Doug Struck: Doug Struck here. Good morning from Boston, where the RedSox have provided temporary diversion from the gloom and doom of other news... Speaking of which, fire away:

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Detroit, Mich.: I find it distressing that while the ice caps are melting secondary to global warming, people are talking about how this will provide an opportunity to drill in the area for more oil and natural gas, which will only exacerbate the problem. Is there any discussion among nations to prohibit drilling in the areas of the melting ice caps?

Doug Struck: Yes. Much discussion, and huge controversy: witness the dispute over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the US. But the world's demand for oil is sending prices skyrocketing, so what arguments will win?

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Fairfax, Va.: Okay. I've bought my Compact Florescent Bulbs. I've decided against the Hummer in favor of a nice Yaris. I've hidden my "split wood not atoms" T-shirt. What, pray tell, outside of huddling in the fetal position, can I do to make things better?

Doug Struck: That's the dilemma, isn't it? The fear is that the size of the problem is far to big to solve as individuals. But that is a defeatest attitude. Individuals, at least in democracies, can help change the course of government policy and commercial practices. The government needs to make incentives, standards, taxes and tax breaks to swerve away from fossil fuels, and private industry will follow. And then we figure out how to pursuade China and India to do the same...

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Philadelphia, Pa.: When factoring in all the worst case scenarios, what is the fastest rate at which the ice caps could melt?

Doug Struck: The estimates are dropping like a stone. Just last year, I reported on a study that said about half of the Arctic's ice would be gone by 2050. Instead, it happened this summer. No one knows if the ice might bounce back for a few years, but the trend is clear in the North. The South Pole is different-- the biggest bulk of the Antarctic Ice Cap would truly take many centuries to melt, scientists believe, but the western edge and archipeligo are crumbling much faster than previous predictions. So, sorry, no one can give a date. The best answer is: a lot faster than we thought.

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Farragut West: Doug, thanks for the chat and the article. How seriously does our government take the threat of global warming? Is there any reason what so ever to be optimistic?

Doug Struck: The current US Administration has been historically hostile to the threats of global warming, and is only belatedly awakening. My own optimism stems from the momentum I see building in communities, towns, cities and now even states. I think change in the US policies and practices will be born there.

The US, by the way, is the odd man out. Much of Europe and many other countries (with huge exceptions in the developing world) have accepted the dangers of climate change and are progressing, however imperfectly, toward decreasing their greenhouse gas emissions.

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Fred, Md.: Is it possible to reverse this trend, or should we be preparing to deal with the consequences?

Doug Struck: The amount of carbon dioxide and methane we have already pumped into the atmosphere has set our course for the next 30 years or so. Things will get hotter. But what actions we take now will determine if the conbsequences get far, far worse after that.

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Denver, Colo.: Why is a story that is describing the alarming rate of the polar ice melt on page A10 not A1? Is this story not incredibly relevant to our planet?

Doug Struck: We trust inquistive readers like yourself will find important stories throughout the paper.

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McLean, Va.: As someone with a degree in oceanography I wanted to express my strong opinion held by many of my colleagues that seeding the oceans with iron is a dreadful idea. The bloom of algae so created could easily create a instability resulting in the upwelling of deep anaerobic water regions. This would release deadly gases into the atmosphere and make the situation far worse.

Doug Struck: There are lots of concerns about "geo-engineering" such as ocean fertilization, or constructing shades in space, etc.. The arguments against such schemes is that man rarely predicts all the consequences of such schemes. The arguments for them are that we already are changing our planet's environment by what we are doing, so why not try to do something beneficial?

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Vienna, Austria: Has any coastal State in the U.S. begun a climate change "adaptation" project to prepare for rising sea levels?

Peter

Doug Struck: Well, New Orleans tried to hold back the sea, and it didn't work when a big storm blew through. The answer is not much. I see in Holland there is a growing concensus that the dikes will not be the answer in the future, either, and there's a spurt of new floating houses.

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Dhaka, Bangladesh: If the impact of global warming has been visible, i.e., if any land being submerged so far. If this process would make cold places habitable where people of drowned countries could take refuge.

Govinda

Doug Struck: Please note the reader's location. Govinda's countrymen and their children will be among the first to suffer from rising sea levels. The sea rise so far has been measured in a few inches. The problem is that the land-based glaciers and ice-caps are now beginning to shed so quickly, people in low-lying areas of Bangladesh will be forced to leave. Where will 150 million Bangladesh residents go? This is why the Pentagon now sees Global Warming as a potential cause of world political instability (that is, war.)

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Vienna, Va.: In your article, you did not really touch on possible causes of climate change. Is there reasonable evidence that climate change is caused by human activity? If so, could you please discuss what this evidence is, and what it shows?

Doug Struck: There is irrefutable evidence that climate change is caused by man. Please see the four reports of the International Panel on Climate Change, an almost unprecedented gathering of the top scientists and best research available in the world.

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Dover, N.J.: Is it too late to reverse global warming? Given the increasing consumption of goods around the world, even if we increase the efficiency of existing products (appliances, cars, industrial infrastructure, power plants), that will be offset just by the sheer increase of these units around the world. Thanks.

Doug Struck: The cost of NOT increasing efficiences and curbing greenhouse gas emissions will be to simply increase the consequences. Yes, it's too late to stop all global warming. No, it's not to late to limit the damage.

But your question fairly gets to scale, and there are many who feel that better efficiencies are only a stop-gap measure to the ultimate solution of finding different sources of energy than burning fossil fuels.

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Bethesda, Md.: Is there any science supporting a natural cause for the dramatic and accelerating decrease in summer arctic ice over the last 20 years?

If there is no natural cause, then does it not follow that humans are the cause and the cure for global warming?

Doug Struck: Scientists are struggling to sort out how much of such changes are "natural" and how much is man-made. It's not an either/or question. But there is a clear and strong concensus that a huge component of the melting sea ice is the result of man's actions.

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Kensington, Md.: Doug, Would you buy a home on an ocean beach? What about Florida coast?

Doug Struck: Not on a reporter's salary.

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Key Largo, Fla.:

Two questions for Mr. Struck:

1. Are you aware that NASA says the reason for the above-average melting of the ice pack is due to strong winds carrying the icebergs further south? It's a cyclic thing that started last year and NASA expects it to get back to normal next year.

2. Why does the Washington Post think it's smarter than NASA?

Doug Struck: I don't believe you are correct about NASA's findings. In fact, the winds that push the ice pack southward in our hemisphere tend to give a false sense of security; that is, that the ice pack has not diminished so much. But satellite photos have documented the overall decrease. Some in NASA have been quite strident in warning of the coming consequences of the loss of ice there, and they have quite famously been muzzled.

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Washington, D.C.: Has anyone considered the relationship of the rate of global warming to the shear increase of the human population? I realize that we all need to live smarter, but isn't it the explosion of population across the globe that has fueled global warming? It's not a very ethical or humane solution, but if our species is to survive, perhaps controlling our growth along with conserving resources is warranted.

Doug Struck: The broader canvas for this discussion is certainly the growth in human population. That is the essence of controversies around "sustainability" : can humans find a way to live in ways that allow them to continue to live?

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Fairfax, Va.: What will it take to convince the right wingers that global warming is real and that time to do something about it is fast running out?

Doug Struck: I would prefer not to cast it in political terms. In fact, I am rather surprised that the debate over global warming has been divided along political lines. As a reporter for more than 30 years, I am used to a small segment of readers who draw unexpected, even bizarre, conclusions from the news. But I admit I am puzzled and discouraged by the vehemence of those who angrily insist that the science is wrong, or a plot, or some sort of political scheme. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an almost unprecedented gathering of the best scientific minds and most thorough research worldwide. Their conclusions have been cautious, slow in coming , scientifically conservative, and yet finally unambiguous: man is drastically changing his environment in ways that will bring immense suffering and upheaval.

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Kensington, Md.: Doug, Has there been any measurable changes in the relative percentages of atmospheric gases, since the noticeable melting of the ice caps? Is CO2 the same or increasing and what about O2 levels which is essential to human life?

Doug Struck: Yes, the dramatic melting of polar ice has come at the same time as a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmoophere and a sharp increase in air temperatures in the Arctic and western Antarctic. That is one reason scientists see a correlation, a cause-and-effect link.

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Arlington, Va.: Mr Struck

I have read that after all analysis, the only true long term carbon sink is the sea.

And also, the basin of the North Sea, acts like Earths kidney. Apparently this small sea is responsible for absorption of up to 20% of all the CO2 that has been produced by man made emissions. Is this correct? It seems an amazing number.

If so what happens to this absorption rate if there are changes to the gulf stream. Or if the waters continue to warm without drastic changes to the gulf stream.

Doug Struck: Yes, the seas are the largest carbon "sink"-- that is, absorbers of carbon-- for our planet. And one nightmare scenario is that they stop absorbing so much carbon because of changes in the sea temperature, the currents and the photosynthesis cycles. (That, by the way, is one reason that some believe leveraging the seas through iron fertilization might-- emphasize might-- increase the absorbtion of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But as previous questions suggest, it is controversial.)

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Washington, D.C.: Be truthful, will we ever be able to convince the nay-sayers, the climate change deniers, that this is actually happening? It feels like, in this country at least, that climate change is a political issue and not a global problem. If all the best scientific evidence can't convince the large minority that it's not "a hoax", as Senator Inhofe continues to call it, then what likelihood do we have of really making substantial change in this country?

Doug Struck: If one is driving 100 mph down a highway and whizes past a dozen flashing signs warning that the road ahead will end, why would anyone keep driving so fast? But read the accident reports-- someone does it every day.

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Washington, D.C.: Hasn't the reduction of smog increased global warming by allowing a higher percentage of the suns rays to heat up the earth's surface? In past global warming/cooling cycles, the scales tip when the sun's rays are obscured or reflected. During the Pre-Cambrian ice ages, dense gases from volcanic eruptions filtered radiation that allowed the surface to cool and create a global ice age, which was compounded by the entire surface of the globe being covered in snow, which also reflected the sun's energy. Shouldn't we just be learning to live in a warmer globe until the scales tip back the other way?

Doug Struck: There's no doubt that there are cascading and surprising links among the various factors that affect the earth's climate. When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991 in the Philippines, it cooled the atmosphere worldwide for more than two years. Cleaner air can allow more warming. But the problem is predicting alle the effects: for example, more warming can cause more evaporation that causes more clouds that reflect more rays. All of which is to say that predictions of cause-and-effect are difficult on such a grand scale. Scientists are cautious, for that reason. But their caution is now giving way to a much broader concensus that-- whatever the unexpected linkages-- man is heating up his planet in ways that are going to contribute to grim consequences that the earth may not reverse. And "just learning to live in a warmer globe" may work for the most affluent on the globe, but not for millions of others whose existence is defined by dependable water patterns and sea levels and weather cycles.

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Vienna, Va.: Mr. Struck: I have come really late to this discussion, but you might want to alert your readers and posters to the following website, which shows potential flooding due to climate change: http://flood.firetree.net. Thanks

Doug Struck: Thanks.

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Doug Struck: Thanks for all of your questions. I am sorry I didn't get to more, but this is a discussion that will continue for many, many years. I now step outside to a strangely balmy day...

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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