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Opinion Foreboding new studies show the climate battle is not over

In this aerial view, melting ice forms a lake on free-floating ice jammed into the Ilulissat Icefjord during unseasonably warm weather on July 30, 2019, near Ilulissat, Greenland. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“This summer is just a horrorscape,” Kim Cobb, the director of the environment and society institute at Brown University, recently told The Post. From global heat waves to multiple floods caused by 1-in-1,000-year levels of rainfall, extreme weather events have caused widespread disruption over the past few weeks. And new studies paint a foreboding picture of the road ahead.

In the first paper, printed in the journal Nature, scientists considered the East Antarctica Ice Sheet, a behemoth approximately the size of the United States that contains most of the world’s glacier area. It was long believed to be less susceptible to rising temperatures than the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, which is exposed to warm water from below, or the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is nearing a “tipping point” for accelerated melting. But some East Antarctica regions are already exhibiting signs of vulnerability, calling into question that assumption.

Drawing on evidence from historical periods of high temperatures, researchers projected that a global temperature increase of below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the top limit specified in the Paris agreement — would likely keep most of the ice sheet intact, but could result in sea level rise of 1.6 feet by the year 2500. Exceeding the Paris threshold could lead to a 16.4-foot increase in sea levels, rendering the planet virtually unrecognizable. “It’s really important that we do not awaken this sleeping giant,” the lead author of the study, Chris Stokes, said in a statement.

Another study in Nature, conducted by researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Tasmania, estimated that Antarctica’s ice shelves had lost 12 trillion tons of mass since 1997, twice the previous estimate. In particular, the team used satellite analysis to investigate the “calving” of icebergs — when they break off from glaciers — and concluded that this caused nearly as much ice loss as thinning from warming seas. This raises fresh concerns about the stability of ice shelves, which are crucial to ensuring glaciers do not collapse into the ocean.

Meanwhile, a third paper, published in Communications Earth & Environment, looked at warming in the Arctic. The authors found that, over the past four decades, the Arctic region warmed four times faster than the rest of the world, significantly higher than expected. This has dire implications for sea level rise — and that is not all. Extreme weather such as heat waves and heavy rainfall are linked to temperature differences between the poles and the equator. As the Arctic warms, these events could become more frequent and intense thousands of miles away.

After decades of “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe,” as U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described the global predicament, the United States has finally found the political will to enact climate legislation. But the window for action to meet the goals of the Paris agreement is rapidly closing. This new research offers a reminder that there is more work to be done, domestically and abroad, if we are to preserve a habitable planet for future generations.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Associate Editor Jonathan Capehart (national politics); Lee Hockstader (immigration; issues affecting Virginia and Maryland); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).

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