“AND YET it moves” was Galileo’s famous response after Catholic authorities forced him to recant his conclusion that the Earth orbits the sun. The 21st-century version of this phrase might be, “And yet it melts.”
A study published in Nature this week found that the world’s glaciers, excluding the massive Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, are retreating far faster than scientists had reckoned before. The result has been an inch of sea-level rise, about a quarter of the sea-level rise already measured. Still left frozen on land — for now — is ice equivalent to another 16 inches. The study found that glaciers in some areas could totally disappear this century.
Sea-level rise is not the only risk. World runoff patterns would change, affecting agriculture and flood management. European scientists also revealed this week that they had found high levels of radioactive materials stored away in glaciers across the globe from years past — including weapons testing in the 1960s and the Chernobyl power plant disaster in 1986. Melting glaciers threaten to release this material into food chains.
Perhaps most important, disappearing ice sheets are harbingers. Humans have built societies around specific, relatively narrow temperature ranges, which determine countless features of our habitat. It is hard enough to adapt to natural variability without also forcing rapid shifts, some expectable and some surprising, in humanity’s climatic circumstances.
Another warning is the increasingly dire state of the Great Barrier Reef. For all the warming that has occurred on land, the oceans have absorbed far more of the excess energy that human-caused greenhouse emissions have trapped on Earth. Spiking ocean temperatures and increasing acidification are clear signs of carbon dioxide’s growing impact. High ocean temperatures led to two mass coral die-offs in 2016 and 2017. Now, according to new research published April 3 in Nature, scientists are finding that the reef is not repopulating as might have been hoped. Following the 2016-2017 catastrophe, new corals are down 89 percent. The reef will never be the same — and it needs recovery time just to return to minimal health. Yet experts expect bleaching events to occur more and more often.
Coral reefs, which anchor marine food chains, protect against storms and provide breathtaking beauty, might adapt over time. Or they might not. And reefs are only one example of the planet’s valuable, irreplaceable natural resources that the addiction to fossil fuels is destroying.
Unfortunately, President Trump still seems more interested in denying reality than caring for future generations. Republicans who aid and abet his irresponsibility will deserve all the blame their children and grandchildren place on them.