IN THE ROOM with pictures of Antarctica on the walls the scientists sit around the table and talk about how fast the Antarctic ice sheets are going to melt as our planet warms. They talk about thinning ice, retreating grounding lines, hydrofracturing and basal friction. They talk about the warming ocean circulating in cavities beneath the ice sheets like subterranean rivers in a deep cave system. They talk about polynya deep-water formation and subglacial melt discharge and they trust me with their words and I catch them and collect them and write them down.
When they talk about marine ice-cliff instability, or MICI, they argue. Some scientists say that when the cliff of a melting glacier gets too high it will collapse into the ocean and float away. When it collapses it will reveal a new cliff, which will also collapse. And so on. Before long the glacier will be gone and the sea will rise from all that melted Antarctic ice. One of the scientists says we don't understand enough about MICI to include it in the models that predict future Antarctic ice melt. ‘Are you taking the mickey?’ says Nick, and everyone laughs.
It’s important to laugh because if you don’t laugh you might cry. Once, at a function, I was holding a glass of bubbly and asking a scientist how some Antarctic research was going and he didn’t have time to finish telling me before the speeches started so he came close and just whispered under his breath, we’re all going to die. I am still bothered by this.
Headlines I’ve collected in recent years: Hydrofracturing is the latest concern for Antarctica’s ice shelves; ‘The fuse has been blown’ and the Doomsday Glacier is coming for us all; Catastrophic sea-level rise from Antarctic melting possible with severe global warming; How soon will the ‘ice apocalypse’ come?; More evidence ‘tipping point’ for Antarctic ice sheet may have been reached.
Here’s a better way of putting things. Widespread collapse of West Antarctica’s ice sheet is avoidable if we keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
IF YOU WANT to understand Antarctic ice melt you need to understand the difference between sea ice, ice shelves and ice sheets. Let me help you. In winter, the ocean surface around Antarctica freezes, a two-metre-thick layer of floating ice that doubles the size of Antarctica. Around Ross Island the sea ice is covered in flags and fuel lines, tracks from Sorel boots and PistonBullies and the wheels of C-17 Globemasters, Twin Otters and C-130 Hercules aircraft. In summer the sea ice gets slushy and breaks up, and the winds and the waves take the ice away, and it melts but this doesn’t raise sea levels because – think about it – some of the sea ice was below sea level to begin with.
I’ve camped, driven a Ski-Doo and ridden in a Hägglund on the Ross Ice Shelf. It’s massive, the biggest ice shelf in the world, the size of France or Texas. The ice shelves help keep the ice sheets in place. I’ve heard scientists say we’ll lose the Ross Ice Shelf by the end of this century. And after that there will be nothing holding back the massive glaciers that drain the ice sheets, and they’ll flow down into the warming sea and they will flow and they will flow and the ice sheet will get thinner and thinner and the seas will rise and rise and rise.
I’ve seen the Polar Plateau. I was in a helicopter, flying to a campsite in the Transantarctic Mountains. We took a detour to explore the Beacon Valley, home to the oldest glacier ice on the planet, lying frozen below the dark brown till that covers the valley floor. The winds buffeted us around as we crossed the mountain tops and I was scared. Then we flew high up to the top of the Taylor and Ferrar glaciers, and Cliff pointed out the Polar Plateau, the top of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. A vast expanse of white beneath a blue summer sky. ‘Just a whole lot of nothing up there,’ he said. Four kilometres thick of nothing. Twenty-seven million cubic kilometres of nothing. So much nothing that if it all melted sea level would rise by fifty-three metres.
Sea level is rising because the warming ocean is expanding, because the land-based glaciers are melting and because the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are melting. We know that sea level will rise thirty centimetres by 2050. We can’t stop that.
For years, scientists were uncertain about how Antarctica would respond to our warming climate. I’ve heard scientists talk about Antarctica as the elephant in the room, the canary in the mine, a Pandora’s box.
Then scientists started publishing papers that said glaciers in Antarctica were more unstable than previously thought, that Antarctic ice melt could add one metre or two metres of sea-level rise by 2100. And it could just go on and on after that.
In February 2020 I wrote in my journal: I have a sense that the coming decades are going to be rocky, scary, a wild ride. It will be like a turbulent flight. Close your eyes, take a pill, wait it out and hope for the best. Trust that the people with expertise are taking care of it. Or am I one of the people with the expertise?
Sometimes the scientists try to understand what the ice sheets have done in the past by drilling deep into marine sediments off the coast of Antarctica or drilling deep into the ice shelves and ice sheets and finding clues in the sediments or the air bubbles that tell us what the climate was like and what the ice sheets did in the past. Another way of finding out what the ice sheets did in the past is by looking at salt marshes in temperate countries. Foraminifera in salt marshes have very narrow vertical ranges and can be used to calculate past sea level to within five centimetres’ accuracy. The tiny foraminifera in Aotearoa and Australia’s salt marshes can tell you how much of Antarctica’s ice melted in the past. Now we know that the last time our planet had more than 400 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the temperature was 3 degrees Celsius warmer and sea level was twenty metres higher.
During the first lockdown I do a webinar on Ice-olation – tips from Antarcticans for coping with isolation. After everyone else has talked I say I am fine, I like lockdown. But I don’t say that I keep crying at random moments. I was going to write for no reason but of course there are reasons.
I think I like lockdown because the collective response – from governments, businesses and individuals – shows that we know how to change things, we could do the same in response to climate change, to stop the Antarctic ice sheets from melting. It gives me hope. We can do this.
If we took the icebergs calving off the coast of Antarctica and towed them to Australia or South America and then melted the ice and put it in big reservoirs, would that stop sea level from rising? If people drank the water, how long before it made its way into the ocean and raised sea levels? Could we put the meltwater back onto the glaciers? Can we pump it high up onto the Antarctic ice sheets so it freezes, so the glaciers grow at the same rate that they are melting, and could we power it all with massive wind farms? I think about these things when I’m baking bread, hanging out washing, in a Zoom meeting. Then I remember that we kind of know what to do – we just need to stop pumping carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere and suck up some of the carbon that’s already there and then the planet will take care of the rest.
I am a judge for a student filmmaking competition, Antarctica Through Fresh Eyes. In one of the entries, Pingo, played by a kid in a penguin suit, gets caught in some plastic rubbish, then is chased by an orca. At the end of the action, the filmmakers, aged six to ten, stand in their school uniforms and talk to the camera.
‘We want a future,’ says one of the boys.
‘We want the ice to stop melting,’ says a little guy, squirming awkwardly.
We need to come together,’ says a solemn-faced boy.
‘What are you going to do?’ asks a girl with a headband.
‘How are you going to change?’ asks another girl, pointing at me.
My colleagues and I survey people to find out what they understand about Antarctic ice melt and sea-level rise and present it at a conference. I stand at the front of the room and show the slides and discuss our results and talk about Antarctica and sea-level rise and public engagement. At question time some men I don’t know give me helpful pointers and suggestions for engaging audiences. Do they understand what that means, one asks after I say that people are worried that sea level could rise up to fifteen metres by the end of this century. Maybe you should ask them to compare sea-level rise to the length of a rugby field, one says. I write WTF? in my notebook. I don’t know anything about rugby fields.
Between lockdowns, I meet some friends and sit outside around a platter of crackers and three types of cheese – a blue, a cumin gouda, a brie – and drink rosé. It’s important to spend time with friends. Then someone starts talking about taking the kids to Europe for their first Northern Hemisphere Christmas and I notice a buzzing in my ears.
TO MAKE PEOPLE care about Antarctica sometimes we need to talk about what it will mean for them and where they live. It won’t just mean sea levels rising and taking away the dunes and the beaches and the wetlands. It won’t just mean flooding in our coastal cities. It will mean saline wedges moving up rivers. It will mean changes to mahinga kai, traditional food-gathering areas. In some low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh and many small island nations, it will mean forced migration as the sea, emboldened by melted Antarctic ice, takes away the land. But the way to get your stories into the media is to talk about what sea-level rise will mean for house prices and insurance premiums. Some coastal properties will become uninsurable! Look! Someone’s three-million-dollar bach is close to the collapsing cliff and who is going to pay for that?
When I get asked to communicate about Antarctica and sea-level rise sometimes I just want to scream that the fucking ice sheets are melting. This approach is not informed by theory.
Models suggest that the threshold for irreversible loss of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius of warming. Somewhere in that range is a tipping point after which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt into the ocean and sea level will rise by 3.3 metres. Nick says it’s already started, he says we’re going to lose the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. We don’t know how long it will take but we do know that Antarctica will be changed forever.
As far as we know, there are no Antarctic gods – no taniwha, no kami, no spirit animals to worship, appease, respect. But maybe the gods are hidden under the ice sheets and will be reanimated when the ice thaws like in The Thing and they will come for us. There is evidence to support this. Scientists find life everywhere they look – in under-ice lakes, volcanic steam vents, tiny air pockets in the glaciers.
At first, the politicians and the idealists said maybe the pandemic is a chance to change things, to converge the solutions to both crises, but now when you read the news everyone wants to get back to normal, which means flying in aeroplanes, but pre-pandemic only 11 per cent of the global population were flying in aeroplanes so it’s not really normal is it?
Tim is good at talking to the media. He says we can’t afford to go over our Paris Agreement targets of 1.5–2 degrees Celsius warming by 2100. He says we need political leadership, business leadership, and individual and community action. But he says it’s not 2 degrees or bust, there’s a range of different futures we can choose and 3 degrees is not as bad as 6 degrees! East Antarctica is already getting soggy around the edges, he says, and he looks serious when he says this.
But who gives up? Tim says. Humans fight, we don’t give up!
Tim has been trying to cut meat from his diet but he sidles up to me at lunch during a symposium and quietly says I had one of those little beef sliders and it was delicious, like he is confessing a crime.
I think it was after The Game Changers documentary that people started talking about plant-based diets. Talking about plant-based diets makes it possible for people across the political spectrum to stop eating meat without having to call themselves vegan or vegetarian.
Some conferences I go to now serve only plant-based food and it’s funny when you look around the room and see the men looking into their sandwiches and then peering into everyone else’s sandwiches, and you know they’re thinking where’s the meat?
At the end of the day there is still a big plate of gluten-free vegan cupcakes. I wrap some pink and purple cupcakes in napkins made from recycled paper and stuff them into compostable paper cups and I think next time I go to a catered lunch I should take an empty container. I don’t think it’s because they were vegan and gluten free that the cupcakes were still there at the end of the day – I think it was because talking about melting Antarctic ice sheets makes you more likely to eat serious food, because all the hummus and beetroot sandwiches are gone.
Richard says the facts are depressing but they can also help motivate us to get to Paris. The scientists talk about getting to Paris a lot. I went to Paris once. I arrived on Christmas Day and my sister met me at the Metro stop and we went to a corner café and drank Kir Royale and a French man asked my sister to marry him and we laughed then went to her place for chilled Moët and a cooked salmon and it was fabulous. Was that my first Northern Hemisphere Christmas? I can’t remember. The best one was in the California mountains when it started snowing on Christmas Eve and in the morning I woke up the children and everyone was so happy and excited and we all went outside to play in the snow. I can’t imagine flying to North America or Europe anymore. It would be nice to do once though. To show the children where their ancestors came from. I guess we could do it at Christmas time. Finland or Scotland in the snow.
In Iceland in 2019, the Prime Minister joined scientists, journalists and other locals at a funeral for the Okjökull Glacier, which had melted so much that it could no longer be called a glacier. They put up a bronze plaque.
A letter to the future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done.
Only you know if we did it.
415 ppm CO2
Who will come to the funerals of Antarctic glaciers? There is no history of human habitation in Antarctica. There are no family stories handed down through generations about the Antarctic glaciers. I’d go to the funeral of an Antarctic glacier and I would probably cry, but because of logistics and carbon miles it would have to be on Zoom or Teams. I would be okay with having tears streaming down my face on camera but I think if I started angry sobbing, wild with grief and anger about how fucked things are and how we don’t seem to change anything, then I would turn off my camera and rage on the floor at home. Or maybe we should all keep our cameras on – the Antarctic scientists, pilots, technicians, chefs, field trainers and base managers – and shout and rage and cry and shake our fists at the world.
After filming a clip on the beach about Antarctic ice melt and sea-level rise we go for lunch. We drink Hazy IPA and look at the dogs sitting under the outdoor tables begging for chips and we smile. Richard orders an ‘um-possible’ burger made with a ‘house-made plant-based pattie’. I order a fish burger because sometimes I need some protein. Tim orders a beef burger because he has just bought an electric car. While we eat Richard starts talking about the end of the Tortonian Age, a time when astronomical cycles led the planet into a cool period during which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet grew and grasslands expanded over the continents, and kelp forests grew in the oceans and the hominids went nuts. Richard says the C3 plants – like rice, wheat and cotton – need cool, moist conditions and they might tolerate only three to four degrees of warming before they fuck off again. The C4 plants – like maize, sugarcane and sorghum – have a different photosynthetic pathway and work better in hot, dry environments. Ninety-five per cent of all green plants are C3 plants.
If all the ice melted in West Antarctica, then East Antarctica would become the mainland and West Antarctica would be an archipelago and the Antarctic Peninsula would be a long, skinny island with a mountain range. Over time, the islands would become covered in vegetation and maybe people would want to live there. But even if it was warmer in winter there would be weeks of darkness but at least it wouldn’t be too hot and maybe it would be cool enough to grow C3 plants and you could eat the king crabs that are marching their way south from South America and are, to be frank, fucking delicious.
Funeral planning. If you’re wanting to prepare in advance it would be advisable to have this list of Antarctic glaciers that are at risk of dying: Thwaites Glacier. Pine Island Glacier. Ross Ice Shelf. All the other glaciers along the Amundsen Coast. Thwaites would be a big funeral. That’s the one they call the Doomsday Glacier.
I’ve noticed the scientists have changed over the years. Now they all drive electric cars and most of them are vegetarian. People get nervous and rub their chins and stare at the ceiling when there’s talk about flying to Europe for conferences. But Tim says we just cannot run an effective international science program without human interaction.
THE SEA IS warmer this year and I can swim until autumn. It’s a marine heatwave, say the scientists, and the swimmers and the surfers are happy and the parents taking their children to the beach to paddle are happy because summer is lasting longer this year and everyone loves summer. But the warm ocean gets under the glaciers and melts them from beneath and that decreases basal friction and that’s the beginning of marine ice-sheet instability and I think about this when I swim.
In February, the Antarctic sea ice shrinks below two-million square kilometres in area, the lowest ever recorded. The sea ice is missing an area about twice the size of California. Comparisons like this are useful.
In March, when a weather station on the Polar Plateau records a temperature 40 degrees Celsius higher than usual, the scientists say it is unprecedented, impossible, unthinkable. The news stories say the scientists are shocked, stunned, astonished. Everyone runs out of words. The scientists blame an atmospheric river of warm, moist air and I imagine swimming in a magical silvery river in the sky and I don’t click on any more of the links.
In April, the new IPCC report comes out, the one that says it’s now or never if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the one that says we need to halve our carbon emissions by 2030, the one that says the next few years are critical. Halve our carbon emissions by 2030.
Another headline from the same week: In a first, an ice shelf collapses in East Antarctica.
The scientists want me to engage the public about Antarctic ice melt and sea-level rise, but I don’t know how to communicate in a world where people cry fake news at each other and there are alternative facts and politicians lie and people say they don’t trust scientists and journalists and no one knows what’s true anymore.
Melted Antarctic ice: coming soon to a beach near you. One metre of sea level rise by 2100, or ongoing and irreversible Antarctic ice loss and sea-level rise? The science is clear but the future is not.