You might ask: What could the largest war in Europe since WWII, over 70 years ago, have in common with a current-day melting glacier? The answer is that both events are the result of human greed.
Exploitation of resources and obsolete ideas are rapidly degrading the environment. Ongoing political disputes, global population migration, economic challenges, the threat of nuclear war, and other urgent problems of our time all pose very real peril. It is natural and appropriate to be concerned about them and to try to find ways to deal with them. But the much more pressing issue that is often overlooked in our thoughts and discussions are the systems-wide effects of climate change. These effects form such an existential threat that it’s not surprising we spend so much of our public discourse on things that take our attention to more localized disruptions. Similar to focusing on a person yelling about fire rather than the threat of a fire itself, we focus on each climatic event separately rather than as the very real break-down of the environmental systems vital for life.
On March 20 of this year, on the United Nation’s website, this headline appeared: A livable future for all is possible, if we take urgent climate action: flagship UN report. The UN article references data from the “Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report” issued by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. In response to these reports, I will explore the significance of the Thwaites Glacier, or the ‘Doomsday Glacier,’ as it has come to be called – and the impact of melting glaciers on sea level. To act upon effective solutions will require transferring our sphere of understanding and identification from the nation where we were raised to that of planetary citizenship.
Understanding the Significance of the Thwaites Glacier
Most of the world’s fresh water is located in glaciers and ice flows. The largest is Antarctica, followed by Greenland and the Arctic. The Thwaites Glacier is located in the western part of the continent and is approximately the size of the island of Great Britain. It is one of the largest and fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica and its melting will have catastrophic consequences for the planet. It has been described as the plug or "linchpin" of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, as it will trigger the collapse of the entire ice sheet behind it and could raise sea levels by 10 feet or more in less than five years.
The significance of the Thwaites Glacier lies in its potential to cause a domino effect of melting in other glaciers and ice sheets as well. For the first time in millions of years, the Thwaites is no longer solid all the way to the ocean floor. As it retreats and melts, it exposes more of the seafloor to warm ocean water, which in turn causes fissures, or cracks, that further escalate melting. This process leads to the destabilization of neighboring glaciers and ice shelves, which will ultimately result in even a greater degree of sea level rise.
Before and After Effects of the Melting of the Antarctic Glaciers
The melting of the Antarctic glaciers has already begun to have consequential effects on the planet. Although there are other additional causes, the melting of glaciers and ice flows is a paramount threat to sustainability. In recent years, there have been reports of massive icebergs breaking off from the Antarctic ice shelves, including the Larsen C ice shelf, which lost an iceberg the size of Delaware in 2017. The melting of the glaciers has also caused global sea levels to rise by an average of 0.4 inches per year over the past few decades.
The effects of melting glaciers, however, are not limited to rising sea levels. As the ice melts, it has been releasing freshwater into the ocean, which is disrupting ocean currents and weather patterns. California, as an example, is experiencing its 12th atmospheric river, causing huge floods with more to come. The loss of global ice, particularly mountain glaciers, also affects most agriculture, wildlife habitats and ecosystems, as well as the availability of freshwater resources for human populations. Glaciers are the reservoirs for rivers. Rivers provide water for most agriculture and transportation, which makes the existence of our cities possible. Most of the world’s major metropolitan areas, and the people in them, exist on or near a coastline. A 10 foot (or more) rise in sea level will render them uninhabitable.
The Role of Climate Change in Glacier Disruption
The melting of the Thwaites and other glaciers is primarily driven by climate change. As global temperatures continue to escalate, human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation, cause the ice sheets and glaciers of Antarctica to be increasingly vulnerable. This is not just a theoretical concept – it is a real and pressing threat. The melting of the Thwaites is accelerating. The impact of rising sea levels is not limited to coastal flooding. This will exacerbate the effects of storms and hurricanes, leading to more frequent and severe flooding and damage.
Clamoring Problems Distracting Us From Larger Trouble
There are a myriad of problems facing us and threatening survival of life. Russian aggression against Ukraine forewarns the spread of authoritarianism; food shortages caused by that war, social destabilization, election denial, worldwide economic volatility, fallout from changing weather, and other huge and important issues are undeniably real. Some people feel these issues can best be solved with absolute authoritarian leadership. Yet history tells us that this type of leadership is destined to fail. For many reasons, I believe the problems must be solved democratically. It is only through inclusion that the pool of accessible talent for solutions to these problems becomes available. In a democratic system, more information is openly available to a much wider audience, enabling opportunities for solutions to emerge from a much wider talent base. Where information is openly shared, there exists greater buy-in by a larger number of people, which, in turn, leads to increased collaboration and cooperation.
Solutions to Glacier Disruption and Climate Change
It would be simplistic, and not within the scope of this article, to delve into an elaborate explanation of all that can, and should, be done. I encourage you to research current environmental efforts, support movements and explore options that interest you. Educate yourself. Discover areas you might want to become involved in. At the very top level of global cooperation, I think we can begin with these few, but critical, steps:
- Encouraging international cooperation and collaboration to address climate change on a global scale
- Invest in research and development of new technologies to address climate change
- Implement policies to encourage sustainable land use practices and reduce deforestation
- Support adaptation measures to help communities and ecosystems adapt to the effects of climate change
- Implement a global tax system to pay for this
- Support the evolution of a democratic world to enable environmental regulation and cooperation, neither of which can be optional when it comes to the environment. As Thom Hartmann, an American radio personality, author, businessman, and progressive political commentator suggests, “At the core of every form of political and social organization is culture—the collective stories people tell themselves about who they are, how they got there, and where they’re going. Government, in many ways, is one of the most direct expressions of culture.”
The Call to Action
We cannot afford to ignore this issue any longer. Collectively, we must take action now. As individuals, we can do so by reducing our own carbon footprint, supporting sustainable businesses and practices, and advocating for climate action at the local, national, and international levels. We must work together to address this urgent issue to ensure a future for ourselves and future generations. Above all, we must not lose hope in our ability to create that future.