Rob Lyons says we should keep cool about the ongoing scare story of Greenland’s melting ice.
According to a paper presented at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco this week, the Greenland ice sheet is melting faster now than at any time since satellite monitoring began in 1979. Konrad Steffen of the University of Colorado at Boulder told the gathering that melting this year was 10 per cent higher than in 2005, the previous record year.
It’s a lot of water. According to Steffen: ‘The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps, or a layer of water more than one-half mile deep covering Washington DC.’ As the enviromental website Grist put it, ‘we think that qualifies as alarming’.
Now, if Washington DC was under half-a-mile of water, that really would be alarming. It might make an interesting tourist attraction, like the lost city of Atlantis, but it would also make running the USA kinda tricky. But in truth, this amount of water isn’t much more than a drop in the ocean.
The surface area of America’s capital doesn’t amount to a whole hill of beans (or a big lake of water) in the great scheme of things. According to Wikipedia, the surface area of DC is 177 square kilometres (km2). But because water spreads out (it’s funny like that), the fact that really matters is the total surface area of the world’s oceans, which is 361million km2 - roughly two million times bigger than Washington.
Spread that melted ice over the whole watery surface of the Earth and it amounts to about 0.5mm per year, or one-fiftieth of an inch. While eco-scaremongers (like Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth) like to mention that the melting of the entire Greenland ice sheet would raise sea level by 6.4 metres, at the current (apparently record) rate of melting, this would take about 12,800 years.
A more sober estimate of the effect of global melting is given by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Working Group I report earlier this year. ‘Global average sea level rose at an average rate of 1.8 [1.3 to 2.3] mm per year over 1961 to 2003. The rate was faster over 1993 to 2003: about 3.1 [2.4 to 3.8] mm per year.’ The IPCC estimates that total sea level rise over the twenty-first century will be between 18cm and 59cm - and the highest figure is based on a degree of warming (6.4 degrees) that is rather unlikely. (This range of sea-level change estimates does not include certain difficult-to-model ice flow processes, but these do not dramatically change the picture.) If the world does get that warm, we will have much bigger problems than rising seas.
And a bit of historical perspective is called for. When Norse explorers and Icelanders discovered Greenland about a thousand years ago, there were trees up to six metres high and there was grass and willow on the hills. This was during the Medieval Climate Optimum, or Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were warmer than today. While calling the country Greenland might have been a bit of smart branding by Erik the Red, it still suggests a country where people could settle, grow food and build a colony, not one big ice sheet.
So, Greenland’s ice is not going to disappear any time soon. Even if melting continues, assuming that anthropogenic global warming is the sole cause of any melting seems premature because there has been considerably less ice in the past before we developed industry. And even if there were to be less ice in the future, that might just open up great chunks of a country which is a quarter the size of the USA to further human development. Maybe not so ‘alarming’ after all.
Greens, your plans to build a giant ark, with the animals going in two-by-two, can remain where they are: on ice.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor at spiked.
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