Dr. Walt Meier on the Wilkins ice shelf collapse, an indication of accelerating climate change
ZAA NKWETA, PRESENTER: A chunk of ice seven times the size of Manhattan recently split from Antarctica’s Wilkins ice shelf. The remaining area, approximately the size of Connecticut, is also at risk of collapsing sooner than previously predicted. To help understand the implications of the Wilkins Ice collapse, and to check in on the status of our warming world, we spoke to Dr. Walt Meier, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientist of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
VOICE OF DR. WALT MEIER, NATIONAL SNOW AND ICE DATA CENTER: The implications for the ice shelf breakup for the Wilkins specifically are not really big climatologically, because it’s not a huge ice shelf compared to some of the other ones in Antarctica. It’s an ice shelf that’s already floating in the water, so it’s already displaced its volume, so it doesn’t raise sea level directly. But what ice shelves can do is they act as dams for ice that’s on land, glaciers that flow down from higher elevations, keeping these glaciers from flowing too quickly. And when you remove that ice shelf, they can dump a lot of ice into the ocean, and that does raise sea levels. That’s what we saw with the Larsen B in 2002. Now, in the Wilkins area, there’s not as many glaciers that flow into the Wilkins ice shelf, and so the collapse is not as important in that sense, but it is another indicator of the warming that we’re seeing, particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula, and an indication of kind of the global warming that we’re seeing around the world. The Wilkins ice shelf is a single event, so you can’t make too much out of one single event. But this has been happening to other ice shelves. We expect that it will continue to happen, free up more ice shelves in the Antarctic. And the Antarctic Peninsula’s one of the fastest-warming regions on the globe. It fits right in with the global warming that we’re seeing, that it’s clearly exogenically produced, it’s clearly human caused, at least in large part. And so the Wilkins is a good symbol of what we’re seeing and what we expect to see in the future. These things have happened in the past. The Wilkins may have collapsed, you know, many centuries before. But when we’re seeing these things happen in concert and kind of at an accelerating pace that, you know, these are things that haven’t been seen in many, many years, and certainly not this many and this scale of the collapses that we’re seeing. And that’s an indication that something different is going on, that it’s not just a natural process. The latest IPCC report that came out last February; it’s been a year since then, and what we’ve seen is that it truly does seem to be conservative. We’ve seen things moving much faster than anticipated in a lot of areas, particularly in the ice caps, in the polar ice caps, and particularly in the Arctic. For example, Greenland has shown much faster melting than the IPCC projections are accounting for. The Arctic Sea ice, the frozen ocean in the Arctic, had a really stunning record this last summer, in September, far below anything the IPCC projected for the next 50 to 100 years. And the rate of decline is several decades faster than what the IPCC has judged. And so it gives you a sense that, you know, people sometimes talk about the IPCC and model results that go in the IPCC as being, you know, they’re just models that could be wrong, and they generally portray that in a sense of, well, things probably aren’t going to be as bad as we think they are. But, of course, if something’s wrong, it could be wrong in both directions, and what we’re seeing is actually it’s wrong in the more pessimistic direction, so to speak. Things are seeming to be worse than the IPCC has projected, and things are going faster than we had thought.
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