Tag Archives: Antarctic

Polar concerns rise as ice now melts ever faster

An Antarctic glacier gathers pace. In the north, the Arctic ice thins faster. Racing climate heat is feeding polar concerns.

LONDON, 15 June, 2021 − An Antarctic glacier has begun to move more quickly towards the open ocean, as the shelf of sea ice that once held it back starts to collapse. The water in that one glacier is enough to raise global sea levels by half a metre. And that’s not all that’s raising polar concerns across the scientific world.

At the other end of the Earth global heating is accelerating the loss of Arctic ice. A new study reports that the thinning of sea ice in three separate coastal regions could now be happening twice as fast.

Both findings are linked to the inexorable rise in global average temperatures as the profligate use of fossil fuels heightens the ratio of greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere.

Antarctic scientists have been worrying about warming in Antarctica for years. And they have been anxiously watching the Pine Island glacier in West Antarctica for decades.

Glaciers move at the proverbial glacial pace towards the sea, to be held in check, in the polar oceans, by vast shelves of sea ice. Between 2017 and 2020 the ice shelves have undergone a series of collapses and lost one fifth of their area, possibly because the glacier has been accelerating.

“The thickness of the sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the health of the Arctic”

“We may not have the luxury of waiting for slow changes on Pine Island; things could actually go much quicker than expected,” said Ian Joughin, of the University of Washington in the US.

“The processes we’d been studying in this region were leading to an irreversible collapse, but at a fairly measured pace. Things could be much more abrupt if we lose the rest of that ice shelf.”

He and his colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that the Pine Island glacier has already become Antarctica’s biggest contributor to sea level rise. The pace of flow remained fairly steady from 2009 to 2017, but they found that data from Europe’s Copernicus Sentinel satellite system showed an acceleration of 12% in the past three years.

The Pine Island glacier contains roughly 180 trillion tonnes of ice, enough to raise global sea levels by 0.5 metres. Researchers had calculated that it might take a century or more for slowly-warming polar waters to thin the ice shelves to the point where they could no longer stem the glacier flow. But it now seems that the big player in the shelf ice collapse is the glacier itself, as the flow rate increases.

“The loss of Pine Island’s ice shelf now looks possibly like it could occur in the next decade or two, as opposed to the melt-driven sub-surface change playing out over more than 100 or more years,” said Pierre Dutrieux of the British Antarctic Survey, a co-author. “So it’s a potentially much more rapid and abrupt change.”

Snow fall dwindles

Abrupt change, too, may be on the way in the Arctic Ocean. British researchers used a new computer simulation to explore measurements from Europe’s CryoSat-2 satellite. The scientists report in the journal The Cryosphere that the thinning of ice in the Laptev and Kara Seas north of Siberia, and the Chukchi Sea between Siberia and Alaska, has stepped up by 70%, 98% and 110% respectively.

Sea ice diminishes each summer and forms again each winter; each successive summer reveals an ever-greater loss, as the ice itself thins and the area covered by ice dwindles.

Calculations of ice thickness have always allowed for the falls of fresh winter snow. But since the formation of sea ice has been later every year, there has been less time for the snow to accumulate. Such things make a difference.

“The thickness of the sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the health of the Arctic,” said Robbie Mallett, of University College London.

“It is important as thicker ice acts as an insulating blanket, stopping the ocean from warming up the atmosphere in winter, and protecting the ocean from sunshine in summer. Thinner ice is also less likely to survive the summer melt.” − Climate News Network

An Antarctic glacier gathers pace. In the north, the Arctic ice thins faster. Racing climate heat is feeding polar concerns.

LONDON, 15 June, 2021 − An Antarctic glacier has begun to move more quickly towards the open ocean, as the shelf of sea ice that once held it back starts to collapse. The water in that one glacier is enough to raise global sea levels by half a metre. And that’s not all that’s raising polar concerns across the scientific world.

At the other end of the Earth global heating is accelerating the loss of Arctic ice. A new study reports that the thinning of sea ice in three separate coastal regions could now be happening twice as fast.

Both findings are linked to the inexorable rise in global average temperatures as the profligate use of fossil fuels heightens the ratio of greenhouse gases in the planet’s atmosphere.

Antarctic scientists have been worrying about warming in Antarctica for years. And they have been anxiously watching the Pine Island glacier in West Antarctica for decades.

Glaciers move at the proverbial glacial pace towards the sea, to be held in check, in the polar oceans, by vast shelves of sea ice. Between 2017 and 2020 the ice shelves have undergone a series of collapses and lost one fifth of their area, possibly because the glacier has been accelerating.

“The thickness of the sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the health of the Arctic”

“We may not have the luxury of waiting for slow changes on Pine Island; things could actually go much quicker than expected,” said Ian Joughin, of the University of Washington in the US.

“The processes we’d been studying in this region were leading to an irreversible collapse, but at a fairly measured pace. Things could be much more abrupt if we lose the rest of that ice shelf.”

He and his colleagues report in the journal Science Advances that the Pine Island glacier has already become Antarctica’s biggest contributor to sea level rise. The pace of flow remained fairly steady from 2009 to 2017, but they found that data from Europe’s Copernicus Sentinel satellite system showed an acceleration of 12% in the past three years.

The Pine Island glacier contains roughly 180 trillion tonnes of ice, enough to raise global sea levels by 0.5 metres. Researchers had calculated that it might take a century or more for slowly-warming polar waters to thin the ice shelves to the point where they could no longer stem the glacier flow. But it now seems that the big player in the shelf ice collapse is the glacier itself, as the flow rate increases.

“The loss of Pine Island’s ice shelf now looks possibly like it could occur in the next decade or two, as opposed to the melt-driven sub-surface change playing out over more than 100 or more years,” said Pierre Dutrieux of the British Antarctic Survey, a co-author. “So it’s a potentially much more rapid and abrupt change.”

Snow fall dwindles

Abrupt change, too, may be on the way in the Arctic Ocean. British researchers used a new computer simulation to explore measurements from Europe’s CryoSat-2 satellite. The scientists report in the journal The Cryosphere that the thinning of ice in the Laptev and Kara Seas north of Siberia, and the Chukchi Sea between Siberia and Alaska, has stepped up by 70%, 98% and 110% respectively.

Sea ice diminishes each summer and forms again each winter; each successive summer reveals an ever-greater loss, as the ice itself thins and the area covered by ice dwindles.

Calculations of ice thickness have always allowed for the falls of fresh winter snow. But since the formation of sea ice has been later every year, there has been less time for the snow to accumulate. Such things make a difference.

“The thickness of the sea ice is a sensitive indicator of the health of the Arctic,” said Robbie Mallett, of University College London.

“It is important as thicker ice acts as an insulating blanket, stopping the ocean from warming up the atmosphere in winter, and protecting the ocean from sunshine in summer. Thinner ice is also less likely to survive the summer melt.” − Climate News Network

Pathway to global climate catastrophe is clear

Global climate catastrophe could be nearer than we think. New research suggests how it could happen.

LONDON, 8 June, 2021 − Here is a set of circumstances that could trigger global climate catastrophe. The Greenland ice sheet could begin a process of irreversible melting.

As it does, greater quantities of fresh water would flood into the Arctic Ocean, to further slow the already slowing Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, that great flow of water sometimes called the Gulf Stream that  distributes warmth from the tropics.

But as the Atlantic flow weakens, so rises the probability of increased and sustained drought and dieback in the Amazon rainforest: the entire region could begin to tip inexorably into savannah.

And the Southern Ocean would begin to warm: it could warm enough to hasten the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, to accelerate the rise of global sea levels and intensify the whole machinery of global heating.

Alarmingly, this process could begin to happen while global temperatures are still not much higher than they are now: 1.5°C has been repeatedly described as the limit beyond which global average temperatures should not rise, but the official global agreed target is a limit of 2°C.

In fact, the chance of a cascade of domino effects − of tipping points that trigger other climate tipping points − could begin somewhere between those two figures, and the probability rises thereafter.

No way back

And, researchers warn, when they say irreversible, they mean it. Once the Greenland ice sheet starts to slide into the sea, there will be no stopping it. The only question is how swiftly all these things could happen.

“Once triggered, the actual tipping process might take several years up to millennia, depending on the respective response times of the system,” the scientists write in the journal Earth System Dynamics.

It’s a scenario, not a prediction. It’s a calculation of possibilities and probabilities inherent in the process of global warming and climate change. It’s an identification of the way atmospheric warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions from human economies can and might change the climate system that drives planetary weather.

“We provide risk analysis, not a prediction, yet our findings still raise concern,” said Ricarda Winkelmann, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, one of the authors.

She and her colleagues base their study on computer simulations of planetary response to temperature rise. And one third of those simulations suggest that if the world reaches 2°C, then one of those elements could begin to tip towards irreversible change, and at the same time trigger other tipping points.

“We’re shifting the odds, and not to our favour − the risk is clearly increasing the more we heat our planet,” said her colleague and co-author Jonathan Donges. “It rises substantially between 1°C and 3°C.

“Rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is indispensable to limit the risks of crossing tipping points in the climate system”

“If greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change cannot be halted, the upper level of this warming range could most likely be crossed by the end of this century. With even higher temperatures, more tipping cascades are to be expected, with long-term devastating effects.”

Climate science has been concerned with the idea of tipping points − temperatures beyond which climate change might be irreversible − for decades. There have been repeated findings that some of these might be nearer than anybody had suspected.

Greenland is in effect the reservoir of most of the Northern hemisphere’s ice − enough to raise sea levels by seven metres − and it is melting at an ever-accelerating rate.

Researchers have again and again identified a possible faltering of the Atlantic current, to warn of a paradoxical consequence: if the Gulf Stream slows, then average temperatures in western Europe could actually fall in a globally-heating world.

The Amazon rainforest − a vital part of the planet’s climate machinery since the end of the last Ice Age − has been hit not just by human degradation but by drought and forest fire, and could be about to slide into permanent savannah.

Overshoot nears

And scientists in Antarctica have been warning for a decade of thinning ice sheets, and accelerating glaciers.

The planet has already warmed by more than a degree Celsius in the last century or so. There is a high chance that some time this decade the annual average planetary temperature could pass the 1.5°C threshold, if only temporarily.

Right now, although 195 nations in Paris in 2015 committed themselves to a target of “well below” 2°C by 2100, the world is heading for a temperature rise by the end of the century of more than 3°C.

The authors concede that their results contain a lot of uncertainties: there is more research to be done. But that doesn’t mean there is no urgency.

“Our analysis is conservative in the sense that several interactions and tipping elements are not yet considered”, said Professor Winkelmann. It would hence be a daring bet to hope that the uncertainties play out in a good way, given what is at stake.

“From a precautionary perspective, rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is indispensable to limit the risks of crossing tipping points in the climate system, and potentially causing domino effects.” − Climate News Network

Global climate catastrophe could be nearer than we think. New research suggests how it could happen.

LONDON, 8 June, 2021 − Here is a set of circumstances that could trigger global climate catastrophe. The Greenland ice sheet could begin a process of irreversible melting.

As it does, greater quantities of fresh water would flood into the Arctic Ocean, to further slow the already slowing Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, that great flow of water sometimes called the Gulf Stream that  distributes warmth from the tropics.

But as the Atlantic flow weakens, so rises the probability of increased and sustained drought and dieback in the Amazon rainforest: the entire region could begin to tip inexorably into savannah.

And the Southern Ocean would begin to warm: it could warm enough to hasten the disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, to accelerate the rise of global sea levels and intensify the whole machinery of global heating.

Alarmingly, this process could begin to happen while global temperatures are still not much higher than they are now: 1.5°C has been repeatedly described as the limit beyond which global average temperatures should not rise, but the official global agreed target is a limit of 2°C.

In fact, the chance of a cascade of domino effects − of tipping points that trigger other climate tipping points − could begin somewhere between those two figures, and the probability rises thereafter.

No way back

And, researchers warn, when they say irreversible, they mean it. Once the Greenland ice sheet starts to slide into the sea, there will be no stopping it. The only question is how swiftly all these things could happen.

“Once triggered, the actual tipping process might take several years up to millennia, depending on the respective response times of the system,” the scientists write in the journal Earth System Dynamics.

It’s a scenario, not a prediction. It’s a calculation of possibilities and probabilities inherent in the process of global warming and climate change. It’s an identification of the way atmospheric warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions from human economies can and might change the climate system that drives planetary weather.

“We provide risk analysis, not a prediction, yet our findings still raise concern,” said Ricarda Winkelmann, of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, one of the authors.

She and her colleagues base their study on computer simulations of planetary response to temperature rise. And one third of those simulations suggest that if the world reaches 2°C, then one of those elements could begin to tip towards irreversible change, and at the same time trigger other tipping points.

“We’re shifting the odds, and not to our favour − the risk is clearly increasing the more we heat our planet,” said her colleague and co-author Jonathan Donges. “It rises substantially between 1°C and 3°C.

“Rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is indispensable to limit the risks of crossing tipping points in the climate system”

“If greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change cannot be halted, the upper level of this warming range could most likely be crossed by the end of this century. With even higher temperatures, more tipping cascades are to be expected, with long-term devastating effects.”

Climate science has been concerned with the idea of tipping points − temperatures beyond which climate change might be irreversible − for decades. There have been repeated findings that some of these might be nearer than anybody had suspected.

Greenland is in effect the reservoir of most of the Northern hemisphere’s ice − enough to raise sea levels by seven metres − and it is melting at an ever-accelerating rate.

Researchers have again and again identified a possible faltering of the Atlantic current, to warn of a paradoxical consequence: if the Gulf Stream slows, then average temperatures in western Europe could actually fall in a globally-heating world.

The Amazon rainforest − a vital part of the planet’s climate machinery since the end of the last Ice Age − has been hit not just by human degradation but by drought and forest fire, and could be about to slide into permanent savannah.

Overshoot nears

And scientists in Antarctica have been warning for a decade of thinning ice sheets, and accelerating glaciers.

The planet has already warmed by more than a degree Celsius in the last century or so. There is a high chance that some time this decade the annual average planetary temperature could pass the 1.5°C threshold, if only temporarily.

Right now, although 195 nations in Paris in 2015 committed themselves to a target of “well below” 2°C by 2100, the world is heading for a temperature rise by the end of the century of more than 3°C.

The authors concede that their results contain a lot of uncertainties: there is more research to be done. But that doesn’t mean there is no urgency.

“Our analysis is conservative in the sense that several interactions and tipping elements are not yet considered”, said Professor Winkelmann. It would hence be a daring bet to hope that the uncertainties play out in a good way, given what is at stake.

“From a precautionary perspective, rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is indispensable to limit the risks of crossing tipping points in the climate system, and potentially causing domino effects.” − Climate News Network

Ecosystem sentinels sound alarm for the oceans

Sea birds are known as ecosystem sentinels, warning of marine loss. As their numbers fall, so could the riches of the ocean.

LONDON, 7 June, 2021 − For a tern in the northern hemisphere, life may be about to take a turn for the worse. For murres or guillemots, as the temperature rises, the chance of survival takes a dive. Many of the world’s seabirds could be in trouble.

And for a mix of reasons, the birds of the southern hemisphere could also be heading into difficulties, but at a slower pace. A worldwide team of 40 
ornithologists has looked at 50 years of breeding records for 67 seabird species to find that as global temperatures notch up, breeding rates are down.

That may be just an indicator of deteriorating conditions on and below the surface of the oceans: the researchers call their seabird subjects “ecosystem sentinels”.

The scientists report in the journal Science that they used their data to test a proposition: that seabird productivity − the numbers that survive each breeding season − would track “hemispheric asymmetry” in ocean climate change and human use.

Put simply, because there is less land and fewer people south of the Equator, because the southern waters are less overfished and subjected to lower pollution levels, and because a bigger ocean space ought to absorb extremes of heat more effectively, seabird survival rates would be worse north of the line than to the south.

“When seabirds aren’t doing well, this is a red flag that something bigger is happening below the ocean’s surface”

And that is because the fish and plankton that seabirds eat can move with the climate, but the seabirds cannot: during the breeding season, they return to the same colonies. And hunt they must: the species Uria aalge, known as the murre or the guillemot, must eat half its bodyweight in fish each day to survive. When a long-term marine heatwave hit the north-east Pacific in 2015-2016, almost a million of them starved to death.

Breeding colonies also suffered. The pattern of change is not uniform: surface-feeding birds were more likely to be in decline; birds like puffins that plunged below the surface tended to fare a little better at rearing offspring to survival.

“Seabirds travel long distances − some going from one hemisphere to the other − chasing their food in the ocean. This makes them sensitive to changes in things like ocean productivity, often over a large area,” said P Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in the US.

“They have to compete with us for food. They get caught in our fishing nets. They eat our plastic, which they think is food. All of these factors can kill off large numbers of long-lived seabirds.”

She and colleagues have monitored the breeding success of a colony of Magellanic penguins in southern Argentina for 35 years. These birds go back to the water each season to feed their chicks: the further they have to swim, the greater the chance of a starved penguin chick.

Competition for food

Stormier weather on land, too, can destroy nests. Female penguins find survival tougher, and are more likely to die at sea. So the proportion of male Magellanic penguins is rising. Today the breeding population at the research site is about half of its numbers 40 years ago.

William Sydeman of the Farallon Institute in Northern California, who led the study, warned that falling seabird numbers could be an indicator of worse things happening at sea.

“What’s also at stake is the health of fish populations such as salmon and cod, as well as marine mammals and large invertebrates, such as squid, that are eating the same small forage fish and plankton that seabirds eat,” he said.

“When seabirds aren’t doing well, this is a red flag that something bigger is happening below the ocean’s surface which is concerning, because we depend on healthy oceans for quality of life.” − Climate News Network

Sea birds are known as ecosystem sentinels, warning of marine loss. As their numbers fall, so could the riches of the ocean.

LONDON, 7 June, 2021 − For a tern in the northern hemisphere, life may be about to take a turn for the worse. For murres or guillemots, as the temperature rises, the chance of survival takes a dive. Many of the world’s seabirds could be in trouble.

And for a mix of reasons, the birds of the southern hemisphere could also be heading into difficulties, but at a slower pace. A worldwide team of 40 
ornithologists has looked at 50 years of breeding records for 67 seabird species to find that as global temperatures notch up, breeding rates are down.

That may be just an indicator of deteriorating conditions on and below the surface of the oceans: the researchers call their seabird subjects “ecosystem sentinels”.

The scientists report in the journal Science that they used their data to test a proposition: that seabird productivity − the numbers that survive each breeding season − would track “hemispheric asymmetry” in ocean climate change and human use.

Put simply, because there is less land and fewer people south of the Equator, because the southern waters are less overfished and subjected to lower pollution levels, and because a bigger ocean space ought to absorb extremes of heat more effectively, seabird survival rates would be worse north of the line than to the south.

“When seabirds aren’t doing well, this is a red flag that something bigger is happening below the ocean’s surface”

And that is because the fish and plankton that seabirds eat can move with the climate, but the seabirds cannot: during the breeding season, they return to the same colonies. And hunt they must: the species Uria aalge, known as the murre or the guillemot, must eat half its bodyweight in fish each day to survive. When a long-term marine heatwave hit the north-east Pacific in 2015-2016, almost a million of them starved to death.

Breeding colonies also suffered. The pattern of change is not uniform: surface-feeding birds were more likely to be in decline; birds like puffins that plunged below the surface tended to fare a little better at rearing offspring to survival.

“Seabirds travel long distances − some going from one hemisphere to the other − chasing their food in the ocean. This makes them sensitive to changes in things like ocean productivity, often over a large area,” said P Dee Boersma, a conservation biologist at the University of Washington in the US.

“They have to compete with us for food. They get caught in our fishing nets. They eat our plastic, which they think is food. All of these factors can kill off large numbers of long-lived seabirds.”

She and colleagues have monitored the breeding success of a colony of Magellanic penguins in southern Argentina for 35 years. These birds go back to the water each season to feed their chicks: the further they have to swim, the greater the chance of a starved penguin chick.

Competition for food

Stormier weather on land, too, can destroy nests. Female penguins find survival tougher, and are more likely to die at sea. So the proportion of male Magellanic penguins is rising. Today the breeding population at the research site is about half of its numbers 40 years ago.

William Sydeman of the Farallon Institute in Northern California, who led the study, warned that falling seabird numbers could be an indicator of worse things happening at sea.

“What’s also at stake is the health of fish populations such as salmon and cod, as well as marine mammals and large invertebrates, such as squid, that are eating the same small forage fish and plankton that seabirds eat,” he said.

“When seabirds aren’t doing well, this is a red flag that something bigger is happening below the ocean’s surface which is concerning, because we depend on healthy oceans for quality of life.” − Climate News Network

2°C more heat may mean catastrophic sea level rise

The Paris Agreement to limit global heat could prevent catastrophic sea level rise, if states keep their promises to cut carbon.

LONDON, 7 May, 2021 − Climate scientists warn that − unless the world acts to limit global heating − the Antarctic ice sheet could begin irreversible collapse. The ice on the Antarctic continent could raise global sea levels by more than 47 metres, higher than a ten-storey building, and enough to unleash catastrophic sea level rise.

Global warming of just 3°C above the long-term average for most of human history would bring on a sea level rise from south polar melting of at least 0.5cms a year from about 2060 onwards.

Right now, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase as nations burn ever more coal, oil and gas to power economic growth, and the world is on course for temperatures significantly above 3°C.

Researchers calculate in the journal Nature that any global warming that exceeds the target of no more than 2°C by 2100, agreed by almost all of the world’s nations in Paris in 2015, will put the ice shelves that ring the southern continent at risk of melting.

“Unstoppable, catastrophic sea level rise from Antarctica [may] be triggered if the Paris Agreement temperature targets are exceeded”

The mass and extent of sea ice acts as a buttress to flow from higher ground. If the sea ice melts, then the flow of glacial ice to the sea will accelerate.

“Ice-sheet collapse is irreversible over thousands of years, and if the Antarctic ice sheet collapse becomes unstable it could continue to retreat for centuries,” said Daniel Gilford of Rutgers University in the US, one of the research team. “That’s regardless of whether emissions mitigation strategies such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are employed.”

The finding is based on computer simulation backed up by detailed knowledge of at least some of the more prominent glaciers in West Antarctica, and of the response of the sea ice offshore to warmer winds and ocean currents.

Nor can it be a surprise to climate scientists: they have been warning for years of the potential loss of shelf-ice, they have already warned that ice loss could become irreversible, and they have measured the rates of loss often enough to be confident that this is accelerating.

On course for 3°C

The ice in Antarctica sits on a landmass bigger than the entire US and European Union combined: the burden of ice adds up to 30 million cubic kilometres, and some of it flows as vast glaciers 50kms wide and 2000 metres deep. And there has been concern for years that some flows are accelerating.

The Paris Agreement actually settled on the phrase “well below 2°C” as the global ambition for 2100. The national plans declared so far to reduce emissions commit the planet to a warming of 3°C or more.

The fear is that at 3°C nothing could prevent eventual ice sheet attrition over the following centuries. The latest research confirms that fear with a more than usually forthright scientific conclusion.

“These results demonstrate the possibility that unstoppable, catastrophic sea level rise from Antarctica will be triggered if the Paris Agreement temperature targets are exceeded,” the scientists write. − Climate News Network

The Paris Agreement to limit global heat could prevent catastrophic sea level rise, if states keep their promises to cut carbon.

LONDON, 7 May, 2021 − Climate scientists warn that − unless the world acts to limit global heating − the Antarctic ice sheet could begin irreversible collapse. The ice on the Antarctic continent could raise global sea levels by more than 47 metres, higher than a ten-storey building, and enough to unleash catastrophic sea level rise.

Global warming of just 3°C above the long-term average for most of human history would bring on a sea level rise from south polar melting of at least 0.5cms a year from about 2060 onwards.

Right now, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase as nations burn ever more coal, oil and gas to power economic growth, and the world is on course for temperatures significantly above 3°C.

Researchers calculate in the journal Nature that any global warming that exceeds the target of no more than 2°C by 2100, agreed by almost all of the world’s nations in Paris in 2015, will put the ice shelves that ring the southern continent at risk of melting.

“Unstoppable, catastrophic sea level rise from Antarctica [may] be triggered if the Paris Agreement temperature targets are exceeded”

The mass and extent of sea ice acts as a buttress to flow from higher ground. If the sea ice melts, then the flow of glacial ice to the sea will accelerate.

“Ice-sheet collapse is irreversible over thousands of years, and if the Antarctic ice sheet collapse becomes unstable it could continue to retreat for centuries,” said Daniel Gilford of Rutgers University in the US, one of the research team. “That’s regardless of whether emissions mitigation strategies such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are employed.”

The finding is based on computer simulation backed up by detailed knowledge of at least some of the more prominent glaciers in West Antarctica, and of the response of the sea ice offshore to warmer winds and ocean currents.

Nor can it be a surprise to climate scientists: they have been warning for years of the potential loss of shelf-ice, they have already warned that ice loss could become irreversible, and they have measured the rates of loss often enough to be confident that this is accelerating.

On course for 3°C

The ice in Antarctica sits on a landmass bigger than the entire US and European Union combined: the burden of ice adds up to 30 million cubic kilometres, and some of it flows as vast glaciers 50kms wide and 2000 metres deep. And there has been concern for years that some flows are accelerating.

The Paris Agreement actually settled on the phrase “well below 2°C” as the global ambition for 2100. The national plans declared so far to reduce emissions commit the planet to a warming of 3°C or more.

The fear is that at 3°C nothing could prevent eventual ice sheet attrition over the following centuries. The latest research confirms that fear with a more than usually forthright scientific conclusion.

“These results demonstrate the possibility that unstoppable, catastrophic sea level rise from Antarctica will be triggered if the Paris Agreement temperature targets are exceeded,” the scientists write. − Climate News Network

Human activity alters Earth’s spin on its axis

The planet may not catch fire, but climate change really has altered the Earth’s spin on its axis as it rounds the sun.

LONDON, 29 April, 2021 − Human action has altered Earth’s spin on its axis. Climate change since 1990 has altered both the rate and the direction of the drift of the north and south poles.

Chinese researchers report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that on the basis of their calculations, the dramatic melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps and the Andean glaciers of South America has shifted the weight of the global water storage system and affected the planetary drift of the poles.

This glacial loss has been compounded by massive increases in the use of groundwater − most of the planet’s fresh water is in fact stored in subterranean aquifers − which have helped to accelerate the rate of change.

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction film. It was in fact the plot of a British 1961 science fiction film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. In that fantasia, Cold War superpower nuclear tests unintentionally alter the planet’s axis of rotation and trigger dramatic changes in climate.

In fact, in the real-life, here-and-now version of planetary rotational shift, climate change driven by economic growth powered by profligate fossil fuel use is the cause. And the superpowers have yet to decide upon a course correction.

Polar speed-up

There is a second difference: the axis of the rotational poles has always shifted, from year to year, in response to the distribution of ice and groundwater, and the oceanic currents; and from aeon to aeon in response to the movements of the continents, and the sloshing of molten iron at the Earth’s core.

What has happened since 1990 is that water loss from both the glaciated land surface and the soil beneath the inhabited surface has been so pronounced that it has tilted the North Pole away from Canada and towards Russia, and accelerated the rate at which this is happening.

Since 1990, geographic North has been tilting, in geodetic language, towards longitude 26°E at the rate of 3.28 milliseconds of arc per year. One millisecond of arc is about 3 cms.

The story has been pieced together by data from a US-German satellite system known as GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), which has been recording ice loss and water storage for most of this century.

“The faster ice-melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s”

The researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, already had access to 176 years of precision measurement of the polar axial shift. In fact, the loss of ice from both the north and south polar regions has been colossal, and has been happening at speed.

Groundwater, too, has been abstracted at accelerating rates and the study notes that while in 1989 India pumped 194 billion cubic metres from the soil, by 2010 this had reached 351 billion cubic metres. There had, too, been dramatic changes in the water levels of vast inland lakes such as the Aral Sea.

The planet is always in a state of change: the magnetic poles are on the move and scientists have confirmed that climate over very long periods is affected by changes in planetary orbit.

Other teams of researchers had separately confirmed that climate change − and the redistribution of water around the planet − must have altered the length of the day by millionths of a second in the course of a year. But the new research has established something more immediately measurable: the alteration of the pattern of rotational tilt.

“The faster ice-melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s,” the researchers conclude. − Climate News Network

The planet may not catch fire, but climate change really has altered the Earth’s spin on its axis as it rounds the sun.

LONDON, 29 April, 2021 − Human action has altered Earth’s spin on its axis. Climate change since 1990 has altered both the rate and the direction of the drift of the north and south poles.

Chinese researchers report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that on the basis of their calculations, the dramatic melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps and the Andean glaciers of South America has shifted the weight of the global water storage system and affected the planetary drift of the poles.

This glacial loss has been compounded by massive increases in the use of groundwater − most of the planet’s fresh water is in fact stored in subterranean aquifers − which have helped to accelerate the rate of change.

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction film. It was in fact the plot of a British 1961 science fiction film, The Day the Earth Caught Fire. In that fantasia, Cold War superpower nuclear tests unintentionally alter the planet’s axis of rotation and trigger dramatic changes in climate.

In fact, in the real-life, here-and-now version of planetary rotational shift, climate change driven by economic growth powered by profligate fossil fuel use is the cause. And the superpowers have yet to decide upon a course correction.

Polar speed-up

There is a second difference: the axis of the rotational poles has always shifted, from year to year, in response to the distribution of ice and groundwater, and the oceanic currents; and from aeon to aeon in response to the movements of the continents, and the sloshing of molten iron at the Earth’s core.

What has happened since 1990 is that water loss from both the glaciated land surface and the soil beneath the inhabited surface has been so pronounced that it has tilted the North Pole away from Canada and towards Russia, and accelerated the rate at which this is happening.

Since 1990, geographic North has been tilting, in geodetic language, towards longitude 26°E at the rate of 3.28 milliseconds of arc per year. One millisecond of arc is about 3 cms.

The story has been pieced together by data from a US-German satellite system known as GRACE (short for Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), which has been recording ice loss and water storage for most of this century.

“The faster ice-melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s”

The researchers, from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, already had access to 176 years of precision measurement of the polar axial shift. In fact, the loss of ice from both the north and south polar regions has been colossal, and has been happening at speed.

Groundwater, too, has been abstracted at accelerating rates and the study notes that while in 1989 India pumped 194 billion cubic metres from the soil, by 2010 this had reached 351 billion cubic metres. There had, too, been dramatic changes in the water levels of vast inland lakes such as the Aral Sea.

The planet is always in a state of change: the magnetic poles are on the move and scientists have confirmed that climate over very long periods is affected by changes in planetary orbit.

Other teams of researchers had separately confirmed that climate change − and the redistribution of water around the planet − must have altered the length of the day by millionths of a second in the course of a year. But the new research has established something more immediately measurable: the alteration of the pattern of rotational tilt.

“The faster ice-melting under global warming was the most likely cause of the directional change of the polar drift in the 1990s,” the researchers conclude. − Climate News Network

Climate heating may speed up to unexpected levels

When the ice thaws, ocean levels rise. And four new studies show climate heating can happen fast.

LONDON, 15 April, 2021 − If climate heating continues apace and the planet goes on warming, then up to a third of Antarctica’s ice shelf could tip into the sea.

And tip is the operative word, according to a separate study: at least one Antarctic glacier could be about to tip into rapid and irreversible retreat if temperatures go on rising.

And rise they could: evidence from the past in a third research programme confirms that at the end of the last Ice Age, Greenland’s temperature rose by somewhere between 5°C and 16°C in just decades, in line with a cascade of climate change events.

And ominously a fourth study of climate change 14,600 years ago confirmed that as the ice retreated, sea levels rose at 10 times the current rate, to 3.6 metres in just a century, and up to 18 metres in a 500-year sequence.

Each study is, on its own, an examination of the complexities of the planetary climate machine and the role of the polar ice sheets in climate change. But the message of the four together is a stark one: climate change is happening, could accelerate and could happen at unexpected speeds.

Unstable at 4°C

The Antarctic ice sheet floats on the sea: were it all to melt, sea levels globally would remain much the same. But the ice sheet plays an important role in stabilising the massive reserves of ice on the continental surface.

“Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise,” warned Ella Gilbert, a meteorologist at the University of Reading in the UK. “When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea.”

She and colleagues report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that their detailed study of the vulnerable platforms of floating ice around the continent revealed that half a million square kilometres of shelf − 34% in total, including two-thirds of all the ice off the Antarctic Peninsula − would become unstable if global temperatures rose by 4°C, under the business-as-usual scenario in which nations went on burning ever-greater quantities of fossil fuel.

If however the world kept to the limit it agreed in Paris in 2015, that would halve the area at risk and perhaps avoid significant sea level rise. But already, just two Antarctic glaciers are responsible for around 10% of sea level rise at the current rate, and researchers have been warning for years that the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica could be at risk.

Now researchers in the UK report in the journal The Cryosphere that their computer simulation had identified a series of tipping points for the Pine Island flow.

“Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from contributing to sea level rise. When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water to pour into the sea”

The third of these, triggered by ocean temperatures that had warmed just 1.2°C, would lead to irretrievable retreat of the entire glacier. Hilmar Gudmundsson, a glaciologist at the UK’s Northumbria University and one of the authors, called the research a “major step forward” in the understanding of the dynamics of the region.

“But the findings of this study also concern me”, he said. “Should the glacier enter unstable irreversible retreat, the impact on sea level could be measured in metres, and as this study shows, once the retreat starts it might be impossible to halt it.”

Rapid polar melt is part of the pattern of climate history. Danish researchers report in Nature Communications that, on the evidence preserved in Greenland ice cores, they identified a series of 30 abrupt climate changes at the close of the Last Ice Age, affecting North Atlantic ocean currents, wind and rainfall patterns and the spread of sea ice: a set of physical processes that changed together, like a row of cascading dominoes.

The precise order of events was difficult to ascertain, but during that sequence the temperature of Greenland soared by 5°C to 16°C in decades to centuries. The question remains open: could such things happen today?

“The results emphasise the importance of trying to limit climate change by, for example, cutting anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, both to reduce the predictable, gradual climate change and to reduce the risk of future abrupt climate change,” said Sune Olander Rasmussen, at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, one of the authors.

Greenland’s future role

“If you do not want the dominoes to topple over, you are better off not to push the table they stand on too much.”

And another study in the same journal by British scientists reports on a close study of geological evidence to decipher the pattern of events during the largest and most rapid pulse of sea level rise at the close of the last Ice Age.

Their study suggested that although the sea levels rose 18 metres in about 500 years − a rate of about 3.6 metres a century − it all happened with relatively little help from a melting Antarctica. As the great glaciers retreated from North America, Europe and Asia, so the oceans rose.

“The next big question is to work out what triggered the ice melt, and what impact the massive influx of meltwater had on ocean currents in the North Atlantic,” said Pippa Whitehouse of the University of Durham, one of the researchers.

“This is very much on our minds today − any disruption to the Gulf Stream, for example due to melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, will have significant consequences for the UK climate.” − Climate News Network

When the ice thaws, ocean levels rise. And four new studies show climate heating can happen fast.

LONDON, 15 April, 2021 − If climate heating continues apace and the planet goes on warming, then up to a third of Antarctica’s ice shelf could tip into the sea.

And tip is the operative word, according to a separate study: at least one Antarctic glacier could be about to tip into rapid and irreversible retreat if temperatures go on rising.

And rise they could: evidence from the past in a third research programme confirms that at the end of the last Ice Age, Greenland’s temperature rose by somewhere between 5°C and 16°C in just decades, in line with a cascade of climate change events.

And ominously a fourth study of climate change 14,600 years ago confirmed that as the ice retreated, sea levels rose at 10 times the current rate, to 3.6 metres in just a century, and up to 18 metres in a 500-year sequence.

Each study is, on its own, an examination of the complexities of the planetary climate machine and the role of the polar ice sheets in climate change. But the message of the four together is a stark one: climate change is happening, could accelerate and could happen at unexpected speeds.

Unstable at 4°C

The Antarctic ice sheet floats on the sea: were it all to melt, sea levels globally would remain much the same. But the ice sheet plays an important role in stabilising the massive reserves of ice on the continental surface.

“Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise,” warned Ella Gilbert, a meteorologist at the University of Reading in the UK. “When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea.”

She and colleagues report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that their detailed study of the vulnerable platforms of floating ice around the continent revealed that half a million square kilometres of shelf − 34% in total, including two-thirds of all the ice off the Antarctic Peninsula − would become unstable if global temperatures rose by 4°C, under the business-as-usual scenario in which nations went on burning ever-greater quantities of fossil fuel.

If however the world kept to the limit it agreed in Paris in 2015, that would halve the area at risk and perhaps avoid significant sea level rise. But already, just two Antarctic glaciers are responsible for around 10% of sea level rise at the current rate, and researchers have been warning for years that the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica could be at risk.

Now researchers in the UK report in the journal The Cryosphere that their computer simulation had identified a series of tipping points for the Pine Island flow.

“Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from contributing to sea level rise. When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water to pour into the sea”

The third of these, triggered by ocean temperatures that had warmed just 1.2°C, would lead to irretrievable retreat of the entire glacier. Hilmar Gudmundsson, a glaciologist at the UK’s Northumbria University and one of the authors, called the research a “major step forward” in the understanding of the dynamics of the region.

“But the findings of this study also concern me”, he said. “Should the glacier enter unstable irreversible retreat, the impact on sea level could be measured in metres, and as this study shows, once the retreat starts it might be impossible to halt it.”

Rapid polar melt is part of the pattern of climate history. Danish researchers report in Nature Communications that, on the evidence preserved in Greenland ice cores, they identified a series of 30 abrupt climate changes at the close of the Last Ice Age, affecting North Atlantic ocean currents, wind and rainfall patterns and the spread of sea ice: a set of physical processes that changed together, like a row of cascading dominoes.

The precise order of events was difficult to ascertain, but during that sequence the temperature of Greenland soared by 5°C to 16°C in decades to centuries. The question remains open: could such things happen today?

“The results emphasise the importance of trying to limit climate change by, for example, cutting anthropogenic emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, both to reduce the predictable, gradual climate change and to reduce the risk of future abrupt climate change,” said Sune Olander Rasmussen, at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, one of the authors.

Greenland’s future role

“If you do not want the dominoes to topple over, you are better off not to push the table they stand on too much.”

And another study in the same journal by British scientists reports on a close study of geological evidence to decipher the pattern of events during the largest and most rapid pulse of sea level rise at the close of the last Ice Age.

Their study suggested that although the sea levels rose 18 metres in about 500 years − a rate of about 3.6 metres a century − it all happened with relatively little help from a melting Antarctica. As the great glaciers retreated from North America, Europe and Asia, so the oceans rose.

“The next big question is to work out what triggered the ice melt, and what impact the massive influx of meltwater had on ocean currents in the North Atlantic,” said Pippa Whitehouse of the University of Durham, one of the researchers.

“This is very much on our minds today − any disruption to the Gulf Stream, for example due to melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet, will have significant consequences for the UK climate.” − Climate News Network

Antarctic warming speed-up alarms researchers

The world’s largest reservoir of snow and ice could be melting faster than ever. Two new studies highlight Antarctic warming.

LONDON, 4 March, 2021 − Antarctic warming is accelerating: at least one of the southern continent’s ice shelves has been melting faster than ever. The polar summer of 2019-20 set a new record for temperatures above freezing point over the George VI ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The finding is ominous: the ice shelves form a natural buttress that slows the rate of glacier flow from the continental bedrock. The faster the glaciers flow into the sea, the higher the hazard of sea level rise.

And a second study confirms that this is already happening in West Antarctica: researchers looked at 25 years of satellite observation of 14 glaciers in the Getz sector to find that meltwater is flowing into the Amundsen Sea ever faster. Between 1994 and 2018, these glaciers lost 315 billion tonnes of ice, enough to raise global sea levels by almost 1mm.

Melting rates in Antarctica have been a source of alarm for years. The latest studies confirm the picture of continuing melt.

“The high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − confirm the Getz basin is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall”

US scientists report in the journal The Cryosphere that they too used satellite observation − 41 years of it − to measure summer meltwater on the ice and in the near-surface snow of the northern part of the George VI ice shelf. They identified the most widespread melt and the greatest total of melt days of any season during the 2019-2020 summer.

Air temperatures were above freezing for up to 90 hours, allowing pools of meltwater to collect on the shelf. At its peak 23% of the region was covered with water: the equivalent, in glaciology’s favourite popular measure, of 250,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“When the temperature is above zero degrees Celsius, that limits refreezing and also leads to further melting,” said Alison Banwell, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who led the study. “Water absorbs more radiation than snow and ice, and that leads to even more melting.”

Remote and untrodden

The Getz shelf is one of the biggest of a sector of the West Antarctic known as Marie Byrd Land. A new report in Nature Communications confirms that all 14 measured glaciers there have picked up speed and reach the ocean ever more swiftly.

Three of them have accelerated by more than 44%. And over the years the loss of ice has been the equivalent of 126 million Olympic swimming pools − all of it now adding to global sea level rise.

“The Getz region of Antarctica is so remote that humans have never set foot on most of this part of the continent,” said Heather Selley, of the University of Leeds, UK, first author. “Satellite radar altimetry records have shown substantial thinning of the ice sheet.

“However, the high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − now confirm the Getz basin is in dynamic imbalance, meaning that it is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall.” − Climate News Network

The world’s largest reservoir of snow and ice could be melting faster than ever. Two new studies highlight Antarctic warming.

LONDON, 4 March, 2021 − Antarctic warming is accelerating: at least one of the southern continent’s ice shelves has been melting faster than ever. The polar summer of 2019-20 set a new record for temperatures above freezing point over the George VI ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The finding is ominous: the ice shelves form a natural buttress that slows the rate of glacier flow from the continental bedrock. The faster the glaciers flow into the sea, the higher the hazard of sea level rise.

And a second study confirms that this is already happening in West Antarctica: researchers looked at 25 years of satellite observation of 14 glaciers in the Getz sector to find that meltwater is flowing into the Amundsen Sea ever faster. Between 1994 and 2018, these glaciers lost 315 billion tonnes of ice, enough to raise global sea levels by almost 1mm.

Melting rates in Antarctica have been a source of alarm for years. The latest studies confirm the picture of continuing melt.

“The high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − confirm the Getz basin is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall”

US scientists report in the journal The Cryosphere that they too used satellite observation − 41 years of it − to measure summer meltwater on the ice and in the near-surface snow of the northern part of the George VI ice shelf. They identified the most widespread melt and the greatest total of melt days of any season during the 2019-2020 summer.

Air temperatures were above freezing for up to 90 hours, allowing pools of meltwater to collect on the shelf. At its peak 23% of the region was covered with water: the equivalent, in glaciology’s favourite popular measure, of 250,000 Olympic swimming pools.

“When the temperature is above zero degrees Celsius, that limits refreezing and also leads to further melting,” said Alison Banwell, of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who led the study. “Water absorbs more radiation than snow and ice, and that leads to even more melting.”

Remote and untrodden

The Getz shelf is one of the biggest of a sector of the West Antarctic known as Marie Byrd Land. A new report in Nature Communications confirms that all 14 measured glaciers there have picked up speed and reach the ocean ever more swiftly.

Three of them have accelerated by more than 44%. And over the years the loss of ice has been the equivalent of 126 million Olympic swimming pools − all of it now adding to global sea level rise.

“The Getz region of Antarctica is so remote that humans have never set foot on most of this part of the continent,” said Heather Selley, of the University of Leeds, UK, first author. “Satellite radar altimetry records have shown substantial thinning of the ice sheet.

“However, the high rates of increased glacier speed − coupled with ice thinning − now confirm the Getz basin is in dynamic imbalance, meaning that it is losing more ice than it gains through snowfall.” − Climate News Network

Hope springs eternal for species facing extinction

Extinction is for ever, but not inevitable. Some threatened species are now surprising survivors. Can others follow suit?

LONDON, 22 February, 2021 − Scientists continue to issue strident warnings that the Earth faces a sixth mass extinction, and the evidence suggests they’re right.

There are some standout survivors, though − birds and mammals which not long ago appeared doomed but are now recovering. There is even a flickering hope that their resurgence could show the way to survival for some other species among the teeming millions at risk.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle, UK, and BirdLife International report in the journal Conservation Letters that different initiatives have prevented up to 32 bird and 16 mammal extinctions since 1993, the year the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force.

As 10 bird and five mammal species are known to have become extinct in that time, the researchers think extinction rates would have been up to four times higher if humans had not acted to help the survivors.

“I think that’s a positive message. It’s not all bad news, always,” said Rike Bolam of the University of Newcastle, the study’s lead author. “It is encouraging that some of the species we studied have recovered very well.”

Success achieved

Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife and an honorary research fellow in the zoology department of the University of Cambridge, said: “These results show that despite the overall failure to meet the targets for conserving nature set through the UN a decade ago, significant success in preventing extinctions was achieved.

“It would be easy to feel conservation was a pointless exercise and there’s nothing we can do to slow the juggernaut down. Broadly speaking, we have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will.”

Many of the most successful conservation efforts involve what science knows as the charismatic megafauna, crowdpuller species such as the tiger, which may attract attention and funding relatively easily in their struggle to escape extinction. Most species do not.

But Bolam and Butchart’s team identified a number of recurring and widely applicable themes in trying to stem the catastrophic race towards oblivion: the removal of invasive species, for example, the management of hunting and protection of important habitats.

“We have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will”

Saving the web of life intact to hand on to future generations the richness of species on which humanity depends won’t be easy. Adam Vaughan, chief reporter at the magazine New Scientist, writes: “Targeted actions won’t turn the tide alone. Stemming biodiversity loss will also require more fundamental changes to how we value nature – and whether those will be forthcoming is the trillion-dollar question.”

To give some idea of what works − and why − the magazine lists 10 survival success stories from around the world. It includes some obvious candidates, creatures which would be at the top of any keen zoologist’s bucket list − and probably most other people’s too. There’s the blue whale, obviously, its Antarctic sub-species reduced by hunters from an estimated 239,000 before industrial whaling started early in the last century to 360 by the early 1970s..

Yet by 2016 there were thought to be 4,500 in the southern ocean − something Jennifer Jackson at the British Antarctic Survey says has a wider lesson for conservation: “The blue whale recovery is symbolic of what humans can do if they just leave things alone.” Now, though, climate change is affecting the krill which are the whales’ main source of food. The possibility of extinction is returning.

China’s giant pandas declined fast in the 20th century. Political will and protected areas improved their prospects from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” The government has created 67 giant panda reserves since the 1960s, and in 1988 banned logging entirely in their habitats. “The determination and investment of the Chinese government is the key,” says Qiang Xu of WWF-China. But the pandas still need much more time before they’re safe.

Mountain gorilla numbers have risen from about 250 in 1981 to 1,063 today. Things were looking hopeful until last month, when a gorilla in a US zoo was found to have contracted Covid-19. Poaching and forest clearance for agriculture remain potent threats.

People matter

Indus river dolphins were once found along the entire 3,000 kms (1,860 miles) of the Indus, but their range fell to 1,300 kms (800 m). By 2001, their numbers had dropped to 1,200, largely because they become stranded and die in irrigation canals.

Acoustic devices help to deter the dolphins from entering the canals, but educating fishing communities and recruiting local people for ecotourism and monitoring has been the key to saving about 1,800 animals, says Uzma Khan of WWF-Pakistan. “I learned you cannot do anything without communities.”

Not every species on the New Scientist’s list will avoid extinction, let alone the countless others which will live and die unremarked. Not all of those listed is even a poster girl (or boy) for conservation.

The world’s most endangered primate, the Hainan gibbon, is endemic to the Chinese island of the same name, and probably not very widely-known. By 1980 its population had fallen from 2,000 to a total barely able to ensure survival − just nine animals. There are now thought to be around a slightly more secure 33 altogether. Wish them luck. − Climate New Network

Extinction is for ever, but not inevitable. Some threatened species are now surprising survivors. Can others follow suit?

LONDON, 22 February, 2021 − Scientists continue to issue strident warnings that the Earth faces a sixth mass extinction, and the evidence suggests they’re right.

There are some standout survivors, though − birds and mammals which not long ago appeared doomed but are now recovering. There is even a flickering hope that their resurgence could show the way to survival for some other species among the teeming millions at risk.

Researchers from the University of Newcastle, UK, and BirdLife International report in the journal Conservation Letters that different initiatives have prevented up to 32 bird and 16 mammal extinctions since 1993, the year the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity entered into force.

As 10 bird and five mammal species are known to have become extinct in that time, the researchers think extinction rates would have been up to four times higher if humans had not acted to help the survivors.

“I think that’s a positive message. It’s not all bad news, always,” said Rike Bolam of the University of Newcastle, the study’s lead author. “It is encouraging that some of the species we studied have recovered very well.”

Success achieved

Stuart Butchart, chief scientist at BirdLife and an honorary research fellow in the zoology department of the University of Cambridge, said: “These results show that despite the overall failure to meet the targets for conserving nature set through the UN a decade ago, significant success in preventing extinctions was achieved.

“It would be easy to feel conservation was a pointless exercise and there’s nothing we can do to slow the juggernaut down. Broadly speaking, we have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will.”

Many of the most successful conservation efforts involve what science knows as the charismatic megafauna, crowdpuller species such as the tiger, which may attract attention and funding relatively easily in their struggle to escape extinction. Most species do not.

But Bolam and Butchart’s team identified a number of recurring and widely applicable themes in trying to stem the catastrophic race towards oblivion: the removal of invasive species, for example, the management of hunting and protection of important habitats.

“We have the tools, we just need much greater resource and political will”

Saving the web of life intact to hand on to future generations the richness of species on which humanity depends won’t be easy. Adam Vaughan, chief reporter at the magazine New Scientist, writes: “Targeted actions won’t turn the tide alone. Stemming biodiversity loss will also require more fundamental changes to how we value nature – and whether those will be forthcoming is the trillion-dollar question.”

To give some idea of what works − and why − the magazine lists 10 survival success stories from around the world. It includes some obvious candidates, creatures which would be at the top of any keen zoologist’s bucket list − and probably most other people’s too. There’s the blue whale, obviously, its Antarctic sub-species reduced by hunters from an estimated 239,000 before industrial whaling started early in the last century to 360 by the early 1970s..

Yet by 2016 there were thought to be 4,500 in the southern ocean − something Jennifer Jackson at the British Antarctic Survey says has a wider lesson for conservation: “The blue whale recovery is symbolic of what humans can do if they just leave things alone.” Now, though, climate change is affecting the krill which are the whales’ main source of food. The possibility of extinction is returning.

China’s giant pandas declined fast in the 20th century. Political will and protected areas improved their prospects from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” The government has created 67 giant panda reserves since the 1960s, and in 1988 banned logging entirely in their habitats. “The determination and investment of the Chinese government is the key,” says Qiang Xu of WWF-China. But the pandas still need much more time before they’re safe.

Mountain gorilla numbers have risen from about 250 in 1981 to 1,063 today. Things were looking hopeful until last month, when a gorilla in a US zoo was found to have contracted Covid-19. Poaching and forest clearance for agriculture remain potent threats.

People matter

Indus river dolphins were once found along the entire 3,000 kms (1,860 miles) of the Indus, but their range fell to 1,300 kms (800 m). By 2001, their numbers had dropped to 1,200, largely because they become stranded and die in irrigation canals.

Acoustic devices help to deter the dolphins from entering the canals, but educating fishing communities and recruiting local people for ecotourism and monitoring has been the key to saving about 1,800 animals, says Uzma Khan of WWF-Pakistan. “I learned you cannot do anything without communities.”

Not every species on the New Scientist’s list will avoid extinction, let alone the countless others which will live and die unremarked. Not all of those listed is even a poster girl (or boy) for conservation.

The world’s most endangered primate, the Hainan gibbon, is endemic to the Chinese island of the same name, and probably not very widely-known. By 1980 its population had fallen from 2,000 to a total barely able to ensure survival − just nine animals. There are now thought to be around a slightly more secure 33 altogether. Wish them luck. − Climate New Network

Human rubbish is smothering the planet’s oceans

In a throwaway world garbage may be unseen, but not gone. Human rubbish is everywhere, from ocean abyss to coastal mud.

LONDON, 29 January, 2021 − In the next 30 years, an estimated three billion metric tonnes of human rubbish − everything from abandoned trawl nets to plastic bottles, from broken teacups to tins of toxin − could find its way into the sea, to defile the ocean floor.

One recent survey in the Strait of Messina, the seaway that separates Italy and Sicily, measured this detritus at concentrations of between 121,000 and 1.3 million items per square kilometre trapped in submarine canyons.

In seabed fissures off Portugal, bits of human litter large enough to identify have been counted at rates of 11,000 per sq km. Off the Ryukyu Islands far from mainland Japan, divers and remotely operated vehicles have made estimates of up to 71,000 items per sq km.

There is more and worse lying on other parts of the seabed. An estimated one million tonnes of chemical weaponry could be scattered about the planet’s oceans. The North Sea floor could be host to 1.3 million tonnes of conventional and chemical weapons; the Baltic enfolds and flows over 385,00 tonnes of dropped bombs, grenades, torpedoes, landmines and other weaponry.

“As humans, we have little or no care at all to prevent litter from accumulating everywhere”

And, says a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters, this conversion of sea floor to careless landfill site creates problems for at least 693 marine species that so far have been observed to “interact” with marine debris: eat it, get caught in it, grow on it. Of these species, around one in six are in some degree endangered.

This list of sea creatures includes 93 kinds of invertebrate, 89 fish, 83 birds, 38 mammals and all species of sea turtle. So many fish now become ensnared in abandoned and derelict fishing gear that they are known as “ghost catches.”

Across the Asia-Pacific region, an estimated 11.1 billion bits of plastic bigger than 25mm could be entangled in the coral reefs. This problem of marine pollution goes far beyond the concern over plastic pollution of the planet’s seas and shores, from pole to pole, and is now found even in marine tissues.

Much of the previous concern has been about the presence of microfibres and small particles of polymer material now found everywhere. But the new study by European scientists tries to address the more obvious problem of these larger items − generally larger than 25mms − of all kinds of detritus, including plastic denser than water and ultimately destined to reach the seabed.

Poor management

The researchers want to try to find standard ways to measure the levels of waste, map its concentrations accurately, identify all the sources of refuse and classify the most problematic kinds: the toxic waste, the heavy metals and radioactive substances, the pharmaceuticals. They also urge international co-operation, and policies designed to discourage marine discharges and to clear up stretches of the sea floor.

“Marine litter has reached the most remote places in the ocean, even the least − or never − frequented by our species and not yet mapped by science,” said Miquel Canals of the University of Barcelona, who led the study.

“In order to correct something bad, we must attack its cause. And the cause of the accumulation of waste on the coasts, seas and oceans , and all over the planet, is the excess waste generation and spillage in the environment, and poor or insufficient management practices.

“As humans, we have little or no care at all to prevent litter from accumulating everywhere.” − Climate News Network

In a throwaway world garbage may be unseen, but not gone. Human rubbish is everywhere, from ocean abyss to coastal mud.

LONDON, 29 January, 2021 − In the next 30 years, an estimated three billion metric tonnes of human rubbish − everything from abandoned trawl nets to plastic bottles, from broken teacups to tins of toxin − could find its way into the sea, to defile the ocean floor.

One recent survey in the Strait of Messina, the seaway that separates Italy and Sicily, measured this detritus at concentrations of between 121,000 and 1.3 million items per square kilometre trapped in submarine canyons.

In seabed fissures off Portugal, bits of human litter large enough to identify have been counted at rates of 11,000 per sq km. Off the Ryukyu Islands far from mainland Japan, divers and remotely operated vehicles have made estimates of up to 71,000 items per sq km.

There is more and worse lying on other parts of the seabed. An estimated one million tonnes of chemical weaponry could be scattered about the planet’s oceans. The North Sea floor could be host to 1.3 million tonnes of conventional and chemical weapons; the Baltic enfolds and flows over 385,00 tonnes of dropped bombs, grenades, torpedoes, landmines and other weaponry.

“As humans, we have little or no care at all to prevent litter from accumulating everywhere”

And, says a new study in the journal Environmental Research Letters, this conversion of sea floor to careless landfill site creates problems for at least 693 marine species that so far have been observed to “interact” with marine debris: eat it, get caught in it, grow on it. Of these species, around one in six are in some degree endangered.

This list of sea creatures includes 93 kinds of invertebrate, 89 fish, 83 birds, 38 mammals and all species of sea turtle. So many fish now become ensnared in abandoned and derelict fishing gear that they are known as “ghost catches.”

Across the Asia-Pacific region, an estimated 11.1 billion bits of plastic bigger than 25mm could be entangled in the coral reefs. This problem of marine pollution goes far beyond the concern over plastic pollution of the planet’s seas and shores, from pole to pole, and is now found even in marine tissues.

Much of the previous concern has been about the presence of microfibres and small particles of polymer material now found everywhere. But the new study by European scientists tries to address the more obvious problem of these larger items − generally larger than 25mms − of all kinds of detritus, including plastic denser than water and ultimately destined to reach the seabed.

Poor management

The researchers want to try to find standard ways to measure the levels of waste, map its concentrations accurately, identify all the sources of refuse and classify the most problematic kinds: the toxic waste, the heavy metals and radioactive substances, the pharmaceuticals. They also urge international co-operation, and policies designed to discourage marine discharges and to clear up stretches of the sea floor.

“Marine litter has reached the most remote places in the ocean, even the least − or never − frequented by our species and not yet mapped by science,” said Miquel Canals of the University of Barcelona, who led the study.

“In order to correct something bad, we must attack its cause. And the cause of the accumulation of waste on the coasts, seas and oceans , and all over the planet, is the excess waste generation and spillage in the environment, and poor or insufficient management practices.

“As humans, we have little or no care at all to prevent litter from accumulating everywhere.” − Climate News Network

Scientists say world’s huge ice loss is speeding up

The frozen world is shrinking at a “staggering” rate. New research takes a measure of the world’s huge ice loss.

LONDON, 27 January, 2021 − Planet Earth is losing its frozen mantle faster than ever as the world’s huge ice loss intensifies. Between 1994 and 2017, the polar regions and the mountain glaciers said farewell to a total of 28 million million tonnes of ice. This is a quantity large enough to conceal the entire United Kingdom under an ice sheet 100 metres thick.

More alarmingly, scientists warn, the rate of loss has been accelerating. Over the course of the 23-year survey of the planet’s ice budget, there has been a 65% increase in the flow of meltwater from the glaciers, ice shelves and ice sheets.

Early in the last decade of the last century, ice loss was counted at 0.8 trillion tonnes a year. By 2017, this had increased to 1.3 trillion tonnes a year, says a new study in the journal The Cryosphere.

The finding should come as no great surprise. Thanks to profligate combustion of fossil fuels and the clearance of forests and grasslands, the planet is warming: 2020 has been awarded the unwelcome title of equal place as warmest year ever recorded, and the last six years have been the six warmest since records began.

“The vast majority of Earth’s ice loss is a direct consequence of climate warming.”

Researchers warned last year that the melting rate of Greenland’s ice sheet − the biggest in the northern hemisphere − would soon hit a 12,000 year high. A second group warned in the same month that ice loss from Antarctica would soon become irreversible.

The latest research, based on satellite data, confirms all fears. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most,” said Thomas Slater, of the University of Leeds in the UK, who led the research.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst case climate warning scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea level rise on this scale will have very serious impacts on coastal communities this century.”

The scientists measured loss from the land-based ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, from the shelf ice around Antarctica and from the drifting sea ice in the Arctic and Southern Oceans, as well as the retreat of 215,000 mountain glaciers worldwide.

‘Staggering’ loss

During the 23-year-survey, thanks to rising air and ocean temperatures, the Arctic Ocean lost 7.6 trillion tonnes, the Antarctic ice shelves 6.5 trillion tonnes. Melting sea ice will not affect sea levels, but it will expose greater areas of ocean to radiation, which would otherwise be reflected back into space. So the loss of sea ice can only lead to even more warming.

The researchers claim theirs is the first full global survey, but they also concede it can only be incomplete: they did not take the measure of fallen snow on land, nor of the icy soils of the permafrost, and they did not try to measure the loss of winter ice on lakes and rivers − but they note that the duration of ice on lakes has fallen by 12 days in the last two centuries, thanks to atmospheric warming.

However, they could put a measure on ice losses from land − 6.1 trillion tonnes from mountain glaciers worldwide, 3.8 trillion tonnes from the Greenland ice sheet, 2.5 trillion tonnes from the Antarctic surface − enough to raise global sea levels by 35mm.

Scientific studies tend to be presented without emotive language. But the researchers call their total of lost ice “staggering”. And they warn: “There can be little doubt that the vast majority of Earth’s ice loss is a direct consequence of climate warming.” − Climate News Network

The frozen world is shrinking at a “staggering” rate. New research takes a measure of the world’s huge ice loss.

LONDON, 27 January, 2021 − Planet Earth is losing its frozen mantle faster than ever as the world’s huge ice loss intensifies. Between 1994 and 2017, the polar regions and the mountain glaciers said farewell to a total of 28 million million tonnes of ice. This is a quantity large enough to conceal the entire United Kingdom under an ice sheet 100 metres thick.

More alarmingly, scientists warn, the rate of loss has been accelerating. Over the course of the 23-year survey of the planet’s ice budget, there has been a 65% increase in the flow of meltwater from the glaciers, ice shelves and ice sheets.

Early in the last decade of the last century, ice loss was counted at 0.8 trillion tonnes a year. By 2017, this had increased to 1.3 trillion tonnes a year, says a new study in the journal The Cryosphere.

The finding should come as no great surprise. Thanks to profligate combustion of fossil fuels and the clearance of forests and grasslands, the planet is warming: 2020 has been awarded the unwelcome title of equal place as warmest year ever recorded, and the last six years have been the six warmest since records began.

“The vast majority of Earth’s ice loss is a direct consequence of climate warming.”

Researchers warned last year that the melting rate of Greenland’s ice sheet − the biggest in the northern hemisphere − would soon hit a 12,000 year high. A second group warned in the same month that ice loss from Antarctica would soon become irreversible.

The latest research, based on satellite data, confirms all fears. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most,” said Thomas Slater, of the University of Leeds in the UK, who led the research.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst case climate warning scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea level rise on this scale will have very serious impacts on coastal communities this century.”

The scientists measured loss from the land-based ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, from the shelf ice around Antarctica and from the drifting sea ice in the Arctic and Southern Oceans, as well as the retreat of 215,000 mountain glaciers worldwide.

‘Staggering’ loss

During the 23-year-survey, thanks to rising air and ocean temperatures, the Arctic Ocean lost 7.6 trillion tonnes, the Antarctic ice shelves 6.5 trillion tonnes. Melting sea ice will not affect sea levels, but it will expose greater areas of ocean to radiation, which would otherwise be reflected back into space. So the loss of sea ice can only lead to even more warming.

The researchers claim theirs is the first full global survey, but they also concede it can only be incomplete: they did not take the measure of fallen snow on land, nor of the icy soils of the permafrost, and they did not try to measure the loss of winter ice on lakes and rivers − but they note that the duration of ice on lakes has fallen by 12 days in the last two centuries, thanks to atmospheric warming.

However, they could put a measure on ice losses from land − 6.1 trillion tonnes from mountain glaciers worldwide, 3.8 trillion tonnes from the Greenland ice sheet, 2.5 trillion tonnes from the Antarctic surface − enough to raise global sea levels by 35mm.

Scientific studies tend to be presented without emotive language. But the researchers call their total of lost ice “staggering”. And they warn: “There can be little doubt that the vast majority of Earth’s ice loss is a direct consequence of climate warming.” − Climate News Network