Climate catastrophe is not impending, it’s already here. From the fossil fuel industry to the military-industrial complex, from the halls of Washington, DC, to Wall Street, a death cult of corporate and governmental power brokers continue to squeeze our dying world for as much profit and control of resources as they can while blocking meaningful climate action and condemning current and future generations to a normalized but totally avoidable dystopia. Capitalism has already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or 2 degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century, largely by burning coal, oil, and gas for energy. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades. While catastrophic climate change is already locked in, that does not mean our opportunity to fight back has passed. The Real News Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez sits down with NASA climate scientist Nathan Kurtz, who just returned from a research trip from the Arctic, to discuss the scale of the disaster facing us and what we can do about it.
Nathan Kurtz received his B.S. degree in Physics from Iowa State University in 2004, and his M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Atmospheric Physics from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) in 2007 and 2009, respectively. He worked on sea ice thickness retrievals from the original ICESat mission during his graduate school studies, and has since focused his work on improving model parameterizations and satellite-based retrievals of sea ice properties from NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, as well as ESA’s CryoSat-2 radar satellite.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez, I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s so great to have you all with us.
As we record this in late July 2022, the planet is boiling. The global heat map is an unsettling array of oranges and reds. In the past six months alone, deadly record-breaking heat waves have pummeled India and Pakistan, the Middle East, and large swabs of China, Africa, the Mediterranean, Latin America, and the Caribbean, Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Extreme weather conditions are causing regular droughts, crop failures, wildfires, floods, mass wildlife deaths. And more and more people living in parts of the world that are being hit the hardest are being forced to leave their homes in the hopes of finding more livable climates.
Climate catastrophe is not coming. It’s here. And from the fossil fuel industry to the military-industrial complex, from the halls of Washington, DC, to Wall Street, a death cult of corporate and governmental power brokers continue to squeeze our dying world for as much profit and control of resources as they can while blocking meaningful climate action and condemning current and future generations to a normalized but totally avoidable dystopia. As Brad Plumer and Henry Fountain wrote one year ago for The New York Times, “Nations have delayed curbing their fossil fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, though there is still a short window to prevent the most harrowing future, a major new United Nations scientific report has concluded. Humans have already heated the planet by roughly 1.1 degrees Celsius, or two degrees Fahrenheit, since the 19th century, largely by burning coal, oil, and gas for energy, and the consequences can be felt across the globe.
“But that’s only the beginning, according to the report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of scientists convened by the United Nations. Even if nations started sharply cutting emissions today, total global warming is likely to rise around 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next two decades, a hotter future that is now essentially locked in.”
As much as it destroys me to say this, it is too late for us to completely avert the catastrophic effects of climate change. But it is not too late to do everything that we can to mitigate these effects, to minimize further warming, and to fight like hell for a future that’s still worth living in. To do so requires first soberly acknowledging where we are as a species on this planet. And here at The Real News, we are hoping to do just that by bringing you a range of regular interviews with climate scientists, climate activists, and people from different parts of the world who are already feeling and fighting the effects of climate change.
To kick off that effort, I had the immense honor of chatting with NASA climate scientist Nathan Kurtz right after he returned to the US from his latest research trip to the Arctic. Nathan Kurtz received his BS degree in physics from Iowa State University in 2004 and his MS and PhD degrees in atmospheric physics from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2007 and 2009 respectively. He worked on sea ice thickness retrievals from the original ISAT mission during his graduate school studies, and has since focused his work on improving model parametrizations and satellite-based retrievals of sea ice properties from NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission, as well as ESA’s CryoSat-2 radar satellite. Put in simple terms, Nathan and his team study the thickness of sea ice in the Arctic, which is what I wanted to talk to him about in our sit-down chat, which we recorded here at The Real News studio.
We talk about the alarming rate at which sea ice in the Arctic and land ice on the Greenland ice sheet are melting, and what that means for our global ecosystem and for life on this planet.
Nathan Kurtz: My name is Nathan Kurtz. I’m the chief of NASA’s Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory at Goddard Space Flight Center. I’m also the deputy project scientist for NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite, it’s called the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite. It’s the second one.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, Nathan, thank you so much for coming down and chatting with us today. I really, really appreciate it. I know that your work is more pressing now than ever before. We are talking, we are having this conversation amidst a record-breaking heat wave that’s got most of the global map bright red. And your work, as I understand it, you’ve done a lot of trips up to the Arctic. You’ve looked at the Greenland ice sheet, and you actually just got back from an expedition. Is that right?
Nathan Kurtz: Yeah. Just came back from Greenland three days ago, so I am adjusting to the heat back here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Sweet. We wanted to take the opportunity to sit down and chat with you about your work, about what you’re seeing on these expeditions, because I think right now all of our collective climate anxieties are through the roof. And I guess I just wanted to give a heads up to listeners and viewers that that’s probably not going to go away by the end of this. But it’s important for us to sit down and stare clear-eyed at the situation before us, to learn from your expertise and your research, to know how bad things are, and what we can do to avert total climate catastrophe. So that’s what we’re going to talk about today.
But before we get there, this is a very special kind of occasion because I’ve gotten the honor to interview your dad, Jeff Kurtz, retired railroad engineer, union officer, Iowa state representative. And we’ve talked a lot about the situation going on in the US rail industry and all the shenanigans there as we speak. We are closer to a national rail shutdown than we’ve been in most of my lifetime. So I just wanted to take the quick opportunity, since Real News viewers have gotten to see me chat with your dad, how you, as the son of a railroader, ended up getting into NASA and glaciology. Where did you diverge?
Nathan Kurtz: Growing up, I heard my dad always talking about working on the railroad. I obviously saw how difficult it was, the odd hours that he had to work, and just a very hard job to do. And he always told me, get an education, go out and do things. And I was always interested in science. He wanted to push me towards engineering, but I was stubborn, just like he’s stubborn.
Maximillian Alvarez: Runs in the family, does it?
Nathan Kurtz: I said, no, I want to do science. And so he was kind of open to it. I remember we went up to Iowa State University where I got my undergraduate degree. We visited the physics department, and he sort of came around to it. Yeah, I guess physics could be interesting. And I didn’t know, I had different things that I wanted to do back then, but yeah, I was learning physics. It was exciting, really interesting. I ended up getting an internship at NASA at Goddard Space Flight Center, just down the road from here, in 2003. So almost 20 years ago and that’s what kicked me off towards, okay, I can make a career out of science. My dad and my parents were all really proud. Going to NASA was a big thing, jumping from Iowa to NASA.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, that’s a big jump.
Nathan Kurtz: Big deal.
Maximillian Alvarez: That’s pretty sweet. And can you say a bit more about how you got invested in glaciology?
Nathan Kurtz: Sure. So it was a winding path. My summer internship was actually trying to study ice on the moons of Jupiter. It was, can we detect an ocean underneath these moons of Jupiter and look for signs of life, things like that. Really interesting. I then came to graduate school at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Maximillian Alvarez: Shout out.
Nathan Kurtz: Yes. And I was in the physics department there. But the funding for the project that I was going to work on, Congress had cut the funding. It was a satellite that was going to go to Jupiter, and they cut the funding. But there are earth observation satellites that are also studying ice, but on earth. And physics is physics, whether it’s a moon of Jupiter or earth, the same kind of physics applies. And so I was doing remote sensing, and it was just a natural fit to then start studying ice on the earth. And that’s when I really became interested in, oh, you know, this has real relevance to what we’re seeing on the earth. Like, wow, this is a big deal, changes that we’re seeing in the ice. And I can study this. I can make a difference here. So it was a natural progression. Okay, I’m going to start studying ice on the earth.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. Keep in mind, you’re speaking to someone with literature degrees, so talk to me as if you were talking to a child who doesn’t know shit about physics. We don’t have to be that rudimentary, but I know that the research that you do is very complex, so we’ll try to walk viewers through it a bit. But before we zero in on your more recent expeditions, I was wondering if you could say a bit more about the kind of things that you’re tracking. How would you explain the research that you do to novices like myself?
Nathan Kurtz: Sure. So I guess just by way of background, before I was in school, people were tracking changes in the ice with different kinds of remote sensing tools. So whether it’s microwave, radar, laser, things like that, there’s a long history of that. And a lot of what I was able to build on, people used satellites that were launched in the late ’70s to start tracking a reliable climate record, especially of the ice that’s in the Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean. And really it was in the ’80s they saw that, wow, there looks like there’s big changes, especially in the Arctic. And the Antarctic, it’s like there were more rudimentary climate models, and they were saying, well, we should see changes in the Antarctic, but this is a really complex system. We don’t necessarily have a good handle on what’s going on.
Flash forward to me being in graduate school, a new satellite was launched that NASA launched. It used a laser in space to track very, very small changes in the surface height. So then we are able to see to a really high accuracy what’s changing in the ice, and especially the ice in the ocean. We measure how high the ice is above the water level, and from that we can determine how thick the ice is. And so this was a very new thing to be able to do. And again, as technology is progressing, we’re able to do this better and better.
In graduate school, I was able to see there are big changes happening in the Arctic, especially then. And I could see that in the data. Looking at this actual data, process it myself, and be like, wow, look at how much the ice was thinning at this time. And so I’ve been using all kinds of remote sensing tools, focusing on radar and laser, trying to determine that. How has this size changed, and can we track it over decades to get this reliable climate record?
Maximillian Alvarez: Before we had satellites with lasers beaming down to track to the centimeter how much the ice was melting or thinning or poking up above the water, is this the kind of thing that we would measure by basically putting a stick in the ground and seeing how far the ice went up or down?
Nathan Kurtz: Yeah. That. A lot of people went out, drilled. Drilled through the ice, or what was used long ago were submarines. Submarines had upward-looking sonar and they were able to track the thickness of the ice. But the problem was, all that data was classified for years because if the ice is very thick, a submarine can’t surface through it. It needs to be thin enough. And so yeah, that data was classified, but scientists were able to work to get it unclassified, or to the degree that they needed to really start tracking changes in the thickness of the ice. But again, a submarine takes a more limited profile. It’s wherever the submarine happened to go. Now with satellites we can start getting a look, essentially, at the whole of the Arctic or the Antarctic over the course of a month with those laser and radar satellites that I use, with microwave. It’s called passive microwave. You get daily coverage. So yeah, all kinds of tools available. But used to be more rudimentary, what we have.
Maximillian Alvarez: And you specialize in the… So I guess another thing to clarify for folks is that there are different kinds of ice, right?
Nathan Kurtz: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And you specialize in the ice that is in the ocean?
Nathan Kurtz: Yes. Specialized with what’s called sea ice. And so sea ice doesn’t affect things like sea level rise, sea level change, because it’s already floating. But what it does affect is the energy balance of the earth, especially in the Arctic, the sea ice has been decreasing substantially. You’re seeing the Arctic is warming about four times as much as the planet as a whole. And it’s because you’re losing that sea ice. It’s exposing this very dark ocean which absorbs a lot of the sun’s energy, and it warms the Arctic. Whereas the ice that’s on the land, so like on Greenland or Antarctica, that’s the ice sheets. And so that doesn’t have so much of an impact on climate as it’s melting, but what that does when that ice melts, it raises sea level. And so we’re seeing sea level is rising, a very big societal issue now, and people want to know what’s going to happen in the next hundred years with sea level rise. There’s a lot of uncertainty in that, and so we’re trying to track it and get a better understanding of that too.
Maximillian Alvarez: Well, thank God that you are because yeah, man, this shit keeps me awake at night. And I want to be upfront about that. Like I said, my climate anxiety is through the roof, especially after this week with heat records being broken across Europe. But before that, there were devastating heat waves in India and all across the Southern Hemisphere, it seemed like. Not to conflate all the weather conditions that we’re experiencing, but I’m very, very grateful to you and the folks who are studying this stuff, because I think a lot of us have that natural tendency to want to put it out of sight, out of mind. It’s almost too big and menacing and horrifying to confront all at once. But it’s important that we not push this under the rug, that we actually understand the situation that we’re in and how bad things actually are before it is truly too late.
So in that vein, I wanted to ask, you’ve taken a number of expeditions up to the Arctic, up to Greenland. I wanted to ask, before we focus on your most recent trip, what over that time span of your 10-plus expeditions, what changes have you seen in the sea ice that you study or the ice sheet when you’re flying above it for hours on end?
Nathan Kurtz: There’s a real dichotomy there. So with the ice sheet, the ice that’s on the land, that’s where you can visibly see changes, because you see the calving in front of a glacier. One year it was way out towards the ocean, and then a few years later how it’s really come back, and that’s a real and stark visible change. And especially there’s places in Antarctica that I’ve been, and there’s been pretty profound changes in where the calving in front of these glaciers has been.
Maximillian Alvarez: And calving is when big chunks of glacier break off and fall into the ocean.
Nathan Kurtz: Yes. And I remember a few years ago, and in Antarctica as well, I think it was the largest recorded iceberg, I think, as far as I know, it had calved off of, I think it was the Larsen ice shelves, and we flew over it. We were the first ones to really set eyes, human eyes on this massive, massive iceberg. And I remember looking at it, and it looked like land. It was so big. We were in a plane flying high up in the air and it was just amazing that this thing had calved off and was —
Maximillian Alvarez: Was this the one that was like as big as Manhattan?
Nathan Kurtz: Much bigger —
Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, that’s right. Yeah. That’s right. Even bigger one.
Nathan Kurtz: So seeing things like that is alarming because you can visually see it. And whereas the changes that are happening with the sea ice, you can’t see it with your eyes. That’s why we need these sophisticated tools, especially when we’re tracking, we want to track how thick the ice is. You can’t really see that with your eyes. You can fly over a patch of ice that you’d be like, well, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, this would’ve been covered with ice. But again, to really get that gut level feeling of, wow, I see the ice changing, you need the sophisticated scientific tools to do that.
Maximillian Alvarez: And those tools are telling you, about the sea ice specifically, what?
Nathan Kurtz: So what we’ve seen is that it’s thinning. And so it’s about half as thick as it was in the mid to early ’80s in the Arctic. And so as this ice is thinning, it’s now retreating more and more in the summer. So every year around September, the Arctic sea ice reaches what’s called its minimum. So it melts throughout the summer, and then it reaches the lowest point, and then it rebounds back and it starts to grow. It used to be that pretty much most of the Arctic Ocean was covered with sea ice year-round. Now, we’re facing in maybe 20 or 30 years where there might be no ice, or almost no ice left in the Arctic Ocean. So we’re seeing really profound changes, especially in the Arctic sea ice.
Maximillian Alvarez: Jesus. And just to tease out what you said before for viewers and listeners who are trying to wrap their heads around that, I think you made it a really important point, that when it’s the land ice that’s melting, that doesn’t have as much to do with the changing climate dynamics, but it does raise sea levels. Whereas the sea ice that you’re studying, as it melts, the dark Arctic Ocean absorbs more of that heat from the sun, thereby having more of a climatic effect.
Nathan Kurtz: Yeah. So that energy that gets absorbed, that’s why we’ve seen the Arctic is warming about four times the rate as the rest of the globe. And so that changes the atmospheric circulation of the whole planet. Because the planet is set up for, you have a warm equator, you have a cold pole, and you get these circulation patterns, these very large scale circulation patterns that get set up. And there’s a lot of research now that’s going into, okay, it looks like, because we’ve changed the temperature of the Arctic so much, that we’re seeing different circulation patterns. And people are trying to understand, more specifically, does this lead to more snowfall events or different precipitation patterns in the US? This is the really new research that’s being done, and it looks like there is some impact to us here in the US or in Europe. It’s very hard statistically to say, yes, we know with really, really good confidence that this is happening. We just need more data, more time. But a lot of research is pointing to the fact that, yes, it is changing weather for us here.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man. And so we’ll circle back to that to finish off, to really put all this in context for folks about how this connects to the larger struggle to mitigate the effects of climate chaos, how much we can still do given where we are right now. But as you mentioned, you just got back from an expedition. So I wanted to ask about that for a second. First, just to give people an eye-level view. So when I think of this — And I’m going to ask a very dumb question — But it’s like, I think of The Thing, that movie from the ’80s, The Thing. I think of Arctic researchers like yourself, just stuck in an outpost somewhere, going a bit stir crazy, surrounded by ice. Not to belittle the work that you do, but clearly, I have no frame of reference here. So I was wondering if you could say a bit about what an expedition like that entails? What is your day-to-day like when you go on these expeditions?
Nathan Kurtz: So a lot of the expeditions I’ve been on are for airborne work. So we’re trying to fly an airplane either underneath the satellite or to try to help better understand our satellite data. And so those, a lot of times, we’ll go to remote airfields in Alaska, or in this case in Greenland, I was at Thule Air Force Base, a base the US military has in Northern Greenland. And so it’s very remote. The Internet’s not very good. But day-to-day, it’s a lot of looking at the weather. Can we fly? Are we able to fly where we’re able to fly under the satellite track? Is it going to be clear? Is it going to be cloudy? Is it worth trying to take that risk to fly? Looking at the satellite tracks, the timing of it, and then looking at things like the wind out in the Arctic Ocean, because it’s going to be pushing the ice, making it drift.
So trying to get a handle on all kinds of issues with timing, with weather, with safety. We deal with the pilots and the weather office. It’s got to be safe enough for us to go. They’re really good about having tolerances and limits on what is safe and what’s not. But bottom line, it still can be dangerous. Like just this morning, I was trying to help direct our crew that’s in Greenland right now, and it was too foggy. They couldn’t take off, and if they did it would’ve been dangerous. We talked about last week’s issues where, if they had taken off, maybe they couldn’t have landed again in the same airfield. There are diverts and such, but it’s making sure that everyone’s safe, making sure that we can collect the data that we want.
Maximillian Alvarez: And you have a small window every year to actually collect that data, right?
Nathan Kurtz: Yeah. In this case we were there for about two and a half weeks. Luckily, the satellite is always collecting data, but the reason we went there this time was our data that we collect in the summer. There’s a lot less known about how the laser interacts with the surface when it starts to melt. And so that’s why we wanted to come in this short window when things are melting, and then conduct the research that way.
Maximillian Alvarez: Okay. So then on this, let’s talk about this latest expedition in comparison to your first. What did you see?
Nathan Kurtz: In my very first expedition to the Arctic, it was in spring. It was probably in March. It would’ve been a little more than 10 years ago. And so everything’s frozen over then. We have regular day-night cycles. The ice is clearly thick. I can see big ridges and such. And again, because it’s at the peak of how thick that it gets. Whereas this time, it’s in the summer, it’s after things have melted quite a bit. So there’s all kinds of melt ponds, is what they’re called, covering the surface. The ice is a lot more broken up. So yeah, big changes that just happened seasonally. But even thinking of how the ice was 10 years ago when I first went compared to now, it has changed. We have lost ice since that time.
Maximillian Alvarez: By way of rounding out, let’s put that in the context of the bigger picture, because it’s something that we’ve been wanting to cover more at The Real News. We do the best we can with the people that we’ve got, but a lot of what we do is we cover grassroots struggles. Whether those be workers fighting for better wages and respect on the job and safer working conditions, so on and so forth, whether those be people fighting against the violence of the prison-industrial complex or the police-industrial complex. And what I’ve noticed of late, especially, is that increasingly more scientists are kind of at their wits end and taking even direct action to try to raise the alarm about the climate emergency.
And President Joe Biden is gesturing towards doing something to acknowledge the climate emergency. But it feels like the headline is we need drastic societal change to avert the catastrophe that we are careening towards, and in many ways are already in. So I wanted to, since I’ve got you here, big shot NASA glaciologist, I wanted to ask you bluntly, how bad is it? What does your research tell us about the state that humanity and the planet are in? And what sort of message would you want to communicate to viewers and listeners about the situation that we’re in right now regarding the climate?
Nathan Kurtz: Sure. One of the biggest things that we as scientists do is we gather the facts, and we’re just trying to present the facts. When we talk about how much the ice is thinning or how much ice is melting from Greenland or Antarctica, trying to put that in terms of numbers, because we want people to ultimately take these numbers and then have the information that they need to make whatever decisions that need to be based on that. And so we want people to believe what it is that we’re saying, too, and we have these very sophisticated tools to do this and measure it. And we have people working very hard, very intelligent people trying to figure this out.
So it’s not that we’re just making things up and trying to push an agenda. We’re just trying to report the facts. And again, people can hopefully make the decisions that they need to based on that. And then a lot of the decisions have been geared towards, let’s try to hold warming at a certain level because we expect, with a certain level of warming, we’re already baked into a certain level of warming. And so we know that will cause certain changes. But the thinking is that if we start getting to a higher level of warming, we could start seeing bigger and bigger changes, and especially big events happening that we wouldn’t necessarily be prepared for, societally, to deal with. And so we as scientists want to communicate, this is what we understand. There’s also a lot of uncertainty and what we don’t understand, and the best we can do is try to communicate that to people, hope that they listen, but it’s on us collectively to take action as we need to.
Maximillian Alvarez: And in that regard, the headline as we’ve been discussing here is that the sea ice is thinning at alarming rates. The ice sheet is melting at alarming rates. Both of those have multiple effects, some that maybe we can see, others that we can’t. But I’m just thinking of messing up the jet stream and all the ripple effects that has on wildlife, on the fishing industry, and so on and so forth. So is that what you’re talking about, the ripple effects of increasing warming that we can’t quite predict?
Nathan Kurtz: Yes. Things like sea level rise, there’s a pretty big uncertainty. The big aspect is what’s sea level rise going to be like in 2100? The current generation of children or their children, what are they going to have to prepare for? What are cities going to have to deal with? Is it a meter of sea level rise? Is it more? We have to be prepared to deal with that. And so that’s sea level rise, that’s just one aspect. And like you said, with our weather patterns, changing the jet stream with changes in sea ice look like they might cause changes in how wavy the jet stream is. And that’s what sets up our weather patterns that we come to rely on, like here in the US where we expect a certain amount of rainfall to grow certain crops, or we expect the temperature to be in a certain range to grow certain crops.
And so if we can understand how we’re changing things, maybe we can adapt, or at least we say, this is the change that we can expect. But there is a lot of uncertainty, especially when you’re talking about weather patterns in the US or Europe that might come about. And so it’s difficult to talk about and be like, this is uncertain, and people don’t necessarily like to hear about uncertainties in science. They want absolutes, and we don’t deal with that.
Maximillian Alvarez: I think it’s the way that we understand that uncertainty, because I think again, just given the inaction, or the less than suitable action taken by the world’s governments, taken by the planet-destroying fossil fuel industry and so on and so forth. I think that when people hear that the effects of climate change are uncertain, the immediate hope is like, well, maybe it’ll just be closer to what we’re used to. But what we’re saying is, well, no, we don’t know how bad it’s going to get. We don’t know how it’s going to change weather patterns. We don’t know how it’s going to affect the supply chain, the food chain or stuff like that. What we do know is it’s happening.
Nathan Kurtz: Yes.
Maximillian Alvarez: And there are a lot of ways in which pretending that it’s not happening is preventing us from being prepared for whatever effects may come.
Well, Nathan, again, my climate anxiety is still here, but I really, really appreciate you coming down and sharing your work with us. And thank you for doing it. Thank you to your team for doing it. We’ll keep doing what we can on this end to make sure that people know about it. Thanks.
Nathan Kurtz: Yep. Thanks. Appreciate it.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez for The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important coverage and conversations just like this. Thank you so much for watching.