Radiolab

Navigate
Return Home

A Hunk Of Planet Dissolves Before Our Eyes

Friday, January 31, 2014 - 08:03 AM

It begins with a growl. Then there's a crack — a slurpy, sucky, crunchy noise. A guy is on the phone, and his pal interrupts him and says, "It's starting, Adam, I think. Adam? It's starting ..." The two are up on a bluff, overlooking a giant ice field. They are standing next to time-lapse cameras. What happens next is astonishing: An enormous frozen, icy hunk of our planet suddenly opens, splits into bits and then sinks right before our eyes into the sea. It happens so, so quickly. And the scale of it? That's the part that shocked me. When they superimpose part of Manhattan Island onto the ice at the end of the clip, you think, "Uh oh." This is a peek into something monstrous.

The video comes from photographer James Balog's film, Chasing Ice. The two guys on the bluff at the beginning are part of Balog's Extreme Ice Survey team, which maintains scores of time-lapse cameras overlooking glaciers in Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, the Rockies and the Himalayas. During daylight hours, they watch and record. Then they share what they see with scientists and National Geographic, and turn the footage into movies and TV shows.

Losing All The Ice In The World? Let Me Calculate ...

What they're seeing, of course, is ice disappearing from mountain tops, from ice fields, from the poles. Seeing it go this quickly in so many places, raises the obvious question: How long will it be before there isn't any ice left? We've had such moments before in earth history; it's certainly possible. We have lived in a gentle age where, every winter, one can take a trip to someplace white to see a snowy mountaintop, a distant glacier creeping down a slope, or an iceberg in the distance. Come summer, the whiteness retreats. It's a lovely balance. But how long will that last?

When Henry Pollack (a professor emeritus of geophysics at the University of Michigan) was asked, he answered, "Losing all the ice in the world? I think sometime between a thousand and 10,000 years encompasses most probabilities."

A thousand years is not a lot of time. As Craig Childs says in his bookApocalyptic Planet, 10 centuries ago Europeans were busy building cathedrals. Chinese merchants were sending flotillas to trade with Africans. "I was thinking we had more time," Craig says.

Konrad Steffen thinks Craig is right. A University of Colorado climatologist, Steffen figures (or figured, a couple of years ago) that Greenland might be iceless in 10,000 years, but Antarctica (being much bigger) will take a lot longer to turn bare.

But that's an endpoint. It's the middle passage that has so many scientists worried. Steffen tells Childs, "Greenland and Antarctica are very remote, and were considered to be big ice boxes that responded not very fast to climate change. We never developed a mechanism to observe them until we had satellites and lasers. Now we see some surfaces lowering up to 50 meters per year." He repeated that number, to make sure Craig heard. "Fifty — five-zero — meters per year." That's a vertical drop of about 150 feet. In two years, that's 300 feet. Then 450. Year after year — enormous piles of ice melting into the sea.

A lot of water. Coming our way.

Tags:

More in:

Comments [13]

The media actively misinforms and disinforms the public about climate change. Amongst the scientists, there was never a debate about whether climate change caused by humans is happening, because they were all always in agreement that it is. The idea of there being a debate and its being a controversial topic has always been a complete fabrication by the media, and they continue to misinform and disinform people about it.

http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode/the-climate-of-climate-science-12-09-28/

There's no doubt that after humans are entirely gone, eventually the planet will heal itself.
The issue isn't about breaking the planet, it's about *destroying our home and poisoning ourselves*, and destroying the home we leave behind for future generations, as well as poisoning them, too, who will have to suffer because of what we did and what we didn't do. (Not to mention the suffering it causes and will continue to cause to so many other non-human organisms.)

The biggest thing we have to worry about is what might happen to the oceans, which are already starting to change. Air and land are pretty dynamic, so if we screw those up, they're not that hard to fix; but with the oceans... Think of it like the difference between a motorboat and an oil tanker. A motorboat doesn't take much power to get it going and going fast, and it's easy to maneuver, so if something happens and you're about to have a collision, you can easily steer the boat away and avoid it. An oil tanker takes an enormous amount of power just to get it to start to move, and it takes a long time and a lot of power to get it up to speed; but once it gets up to even a moderate speed, if something goes wrong and it's on a course to collide with something else, there's no stopping it, and it's going to destroy everything in it's path. If we reach that point of no return with the oceans, then what will happen is that the oceans will die, and thus, the source of about 75% of the planet's breathable air will be gone.

Feb. 11 2014 03:38 PM
Robert Wm. Stevens

Hmmmmm, think about this.....

Feb. 07 2014 08:32 PM
Nature

It's a glacier. That's what glaciers do.

Feb. 07 2014 03:09 PM
not sure

A huge "hunk of planet" did not dissolve, it just moved and some of it changed energy state. It is just criminal to take such an amazing natural event that has been happening on this planet for millions of years and all of a sudden make it a "horror". Just because they were able to see and film it. This planet is amazing. We are not going to "break" it..it will be broken by itself, by a space rock, or the Sun. Global climate change WILL happen as it has been happening for millions of years. We are an organism that resides on this planet and, aside from total eradication, we are a synergistic part of the biosystem. Just as the dinosaurs were. We have to live and thrive because we are deterministic. We spew CO2, the system will exert it's balance as it has in eons past. The scale is far too large for anyone "decision" to make a difference. And the only solution to AGW is wholesale "removal" of the human species because we cannot just "exist". We must create and produce.

So we can analyze this "issue" five ways to Sunday but the bottom line is that you can only do YOUR part if you feel something must be done. Leave everyone else to do what they think is right. Quite telling us the sky is falling....because it ISN'T. Just understand it and make decisions in your life accordingly.

By the way, I am looking forward to a little heating of the atmosphere since ice records are indicating that we are heading into a the next ice age. A little heat may make it more bearable. Global warming may mean the agricultural areas of the planet may change and there will be more water for irrigation. An ice age means certain death for us all.

http://joannenova.com.au/2010/02/the-big-picture-65-million-years-of-temperature-swings/

Feb. 07 2014 02:57 PM
Bil Jac

The Earth is not broken, however, many people's ideas about science may be. In contrast show us time elapse videos of the Antarctic along side statistical data in regard to mass and lets decide. Or we can simply wait till Florida is underwater, that would be proof... Till then, as the Arctic melts and looses mass the Antarctic gains mass, much like conservation of energy I suppose. http://wattsupwiththat.com/2012/09/10/icesat-data-shows-mass-gains-of-the-antarctic-ice-sheet-exceed-losses/

Feb. 07 2014 02:28 AM

Robert Parker, it is NOT the sun.

http://www.skepticalscience.com/solar-activity-sunspots-global-warming-advanced.htm

Feb. 06 2014 06:01 PM
Erin from not from Portland

I think I know where the ice went...... In my backyard :(

All kidding aside, powerful article! Thanks again!

Feb. 05 2014 05:09 PM
Robert Parker

Climate change? well; Duh ?
What on this Earth does not change?
What on this Earth did not have a beginning and an ending?
What on this Earth does not have a cycle of existence?
How were the Great Lakes formed? Melting glaciers.
What used to cover most of North America? glaciers.
What causes global warming/cooling? ..m a y b e t h e s u n ?
And you think cow farts have more of an impact than the cycles of the sun… ? Really….?

Feb. 04 2014 11:37 PM
James from Williamsburg, Va

Thanks, Robert. I always love your storytelling. It's so easy to hear your voice. Whether this is evidence of global warming from carbon emissions or not, it's a breathtaking image. Kudos to these guys for their efforts, bringing this compelling footage to those of us who aren't so inclined to brave the uncomfortable cold.

Feb. 04 2014 07:13 PM
Theresa

Debra,
From the caption on the original Youtube video:
"On May 28, 2008, Adam LeWinter and Director Jeff Orlowski filmed a historic breakup at the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland. The calving event lasted for 75 minutes and the glacier retreated a full mile across a calving face three miles wide. The height of the ice is about 3,000 feet, 300-400 feet above water and the rest below water."

Feb. 03 2014 07:37 PM
david from Rossville, Ga

Thank you so much for this dramatic evidence of climate change. In my opinion, anyone who sees this illustration to the end will know of the denial of those who refuse to face the facts. I am an inventor and have a solution to pollution from heating homes with fossil fuels in the lower forty eight. The denial over climate change has been frustrating my efforts from the first mention of the misnomer "global warming."
I convert existing air conditioning equipment into heat pumps. If every air conditioner that is not a heat pump from the factory were to be upgraded in the field, 55 million metric tons of carbon equivalent annually would be kept from the atmosphere.
Maybe the effort made by these scientists as patient cameramen will start a calving of carbon equivalent.
www.hybridupgrade.wordpress.com

Feb. 03 2014 06:49 PM
Debra A. Holmes

Did I miss where you said this is taking place?
It is incredible.
Thank you.

Feb. 03 2014 06:40 PM
William Partridge from Colombia

Wow. Thanks for that super article and video footage. You just got a new fan.

Feb. 03 2014 02:46 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Supported by

Feeds