“We’re ‘In’ Global Warming Now”

By Tom Yulsman | May 14, 2014 2:54 pm
global warming now

Based on satellite data, this is the first complete map of the speed and direction of ice flow in the Antarctic. The lowest velocities (oranges and yellows) are about 1,000 times slower than the fastest ones (purples and reds). Click the thumbnail in the text below for a map with the major ice sheets labelled. Also: See below for an animated visualization. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio)

Yesterday, I described new research suggesting that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may be in the early stages of irreversible disintegration and melting — something that could eventually raise sea level by more than 10 feet. Today, I’d like to share the perspective of scientists who weren’t involved in the research.

In my post yesterday, I said I thought the new findings would eventually come to be seen as historic.

This might seem odd, given that the research shows that it would take a minimum of 200 years for the ice sheet to begin a rapid phase of disintegration. But I also pointed out that on a geologic timescale, centuries represent a veritable blink of the eye:

. . . in a blazing flash, geologically speaking, we humans are managing to remake the life support systems of our entire planet. This is why I think today’s news may eventually be seen as having historic significance.

But I was also curious to see what experts who have been researching the Earth’s cryosphere and climate for a long time have to say on this question. So I emailed about a half dozen of them. So far, I’ve heard from four, and I’ll include their responses below.

But first, check out this stunning animation showing the speed and direction of ice flows in Antarctica. It makes the still image at the top of this post come alive:

With that as visual background, here was the question I posed to the scientists in my email:

I’m writing to see whether you have any thoughts on the significance of the trio of papers that have come out about the apparently unstoppable disintegration of at least a large portion of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet  . . . My own first reaction was that this will eventually be viewed as an historic moment. But maybe I’m being overly dramatic. I’m wondering what you think.

Waleed Abdalati, director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences here in Boulder, was one of the scientists who responded. Waleed has served as Chief Scientist of NASA. His research involves the use of satellite and airborne remote sensing techniques, integrated with observations and modeling, “to understand how and why the Earth’s ice cover is changing, and what those changes mean for life on Earth.” He was concise in his response:

Hi Tom, I have only glanced at the papers, but I would characterize them as providing evidence of something we thought was happening, but just did not observe or quantify. So is it significant? Yes, in the sense that it shows what we thought/feared was happening.

Ted Scambos will probably have a more informed opinion, since his work is more closely tied to this region. But I do think that taken together, this is a big story,


I had, in fact, already emailed Ted Scambos. He’s lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. (Full disclosure: I am a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, so technically speaking, I am Waleed’s and Ted’s colleague.) Here’s what he had to say:

I agree with you Tom, I think it is a significant turning point, and it comes at a time when the public view appears to be shifting a bit – we are ‘in’ global warming now. You could argue that scientists felt this way more than a decade ago (esp. polar scientists) but the advent of Sandy, the 2012 record Arctic low ice extent and intense Greenland melting, and the steady drumbeat of results pointing toward climate and ocean effects has I think reached much of the public. Moreover, I think the policymakers (govt agencies, not politicians) are increasingly simply ‘getting on with it’ in terms of preparation and infrastructure to both adapt to, and combat, anthropogenic climate change.

On the science of the studies — it is a rare combination of events, observations, and modeling advances that have come together to generate this level of impact — the Antarctic has entered an irreversible phase of ice mass loss. While it’s true that what we’re talking about is a slow-motion roller coaster of 500 years’ duration, we nevertheless have the sobering realization that we just bequeathed a rising ocean to a dozen generations. And we can look at the first one or two right now. Standing next to us.

We are going to seem like total idiots to them when the transition to solar-wind-hydro-geo, and conservation, takes hold.

I’m not sure that we’ll look like total idiots — after all, the current generations have been slowly laying the technological groundwork for this transition. But we’ve done it too slowly to avoid being, as Ted put it, “in global warming now.” We are, in a very big way. As the findings announced yesterday show quite dramatically, it’s too late to avoid that.

One of the first scientists I thought to ask about these issues was Eric Steig, an earth scientist at the University of Washington who conducts research into past environmental changes with the goal of understanding contemporary and possible future change. Eric sent back a long and detailed response; I’ll include what I think are the most pertinent parts, along with some explanation of some of the technical details. Here goes:

Both papers are great and impressive.  I do agree with you — I think 50 years from now we will look back and say “yup, we were sure of this already in 2014; why didn’t we do anything?”, because of these papers.

Having said that, I am not yet convinced by the “unstoppable” argument. Ian Joughin’s work shows that advance could occur if major reductions in the melt rate under the glaciers were to occur. This indeed happened in 2012 due to a very large La Niña event (see Dutrieux et al., 2014).

Ian Joughin’s paper is one of two that were made public yesterday. And Eric is pointing out here that the Thwaites Glacier, one of six that flow off the West Antarctic Ice Sheet into the Amundsen Sea, could stop receding and begin to advance if melting that’s now occurring beneath its floating ice shelf were to slow down — as it did back in 2012.

Steig continues:

Having said THAT, I would not take bets on my being right here.  The chances of favorable winds persistently occurring such that the circumpolar deep water no longer flows onto the shelf and melts the ice is small.  Not zero, but small.  It would probably require the planet to go into a pretty much persistent La Niña phase; all the models suggest something much more like El Niño in the future.  So, while the scientist in me says “I’m not so sure about this”, my educated guess is, yes, the “collapse” has begun.

Steig is talking here about a change in wind patterns that could help prevent deep, relatively warm water that circles Antarctica from flowing into the Amundsen Sea Embayment, an indentation in Antarctica’s coast where glaciers of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet flow out into the sea. Right now, this flow of warm water is causing the undersides of these glaciers’ ice shelves — their floating portions — to thin. And this, in turn, is helping to promote the process of disintegration.

The warm water is reaching the glaciers because of increases in westerly winds. Some researchers have attributed this to the ozone hole that occurs in Antarctica each winter. But in his email Steig said recent research shows something else is to blame: the temperature of the sea surface in the tropical Pacific Ocean. And that’s where the connection to La Niña and El Niño comes in.

These are opposite sides to a climatic coin. El Niño is the warmer side (and we appear to be entering one right now). The phenomenon is associated with unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific.

During El Niño years, global average temperatures tend to be higher than in neutral years.  During a La Niña, the opposite is true. (And both have significant impacts on weather around the globe.)

With that as background, Steig’s main point comes into view: As we humans continue to warm the Earth through our emissions of greenhouse gases, climate modeling suggests that warming of the central tropics will be particularly pronounced. That’s like an El Niño condition, not La Niña. And that’s why Steig believes the current wind conditions that are bringing the warm, destabilizing water to the glaciers of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, are likely to persist.

For a perspective from a different scientific discipline, I contacted Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Kevin doesn’t study ice sheets. He specializes in global energy and water cycles and how they are changing. In his response, he said he had not yet had the time to read the papers on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse.With that in mind, I won’t include his entire email here. But this portion I thought was quite relevant:

We have increasing evidence that some of what is going on in the Arctic and Antarctic is related to internal (natural) variability rather than climate change, very much associated with the so-called hiatus in global mean temperatures, and the patterns associated with that, which relate to the PDO [a climatic phenomenon known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation].  I have an article submitted to Science related to that aspect.  So it is easy to over-estimate the effects of climate change.

I emailed him back and said that regardless of the possible impacts of natural variability, increased westerly winds, etc., “we are continuing to add heat to the oceans, correct?” And so while all sorts of natural factors not yet fully understood could serve to slow things down, won’t the inexorable build up of heat likely lead to eventual disintegration of the ice sheet?

He answered ‘yes’ to both questions.

One message that I take away from these exchanges is that the cartoon caricatures of climate scientists advanced by many skeptics are very far from the mark. If we are to believe these skeptics, many climate scientists are either fire-breathing activists motivated by a political agenda and a greedy hunt for research funding, or an uncritical pack motivated by groupthink in ways that hopelessly skew their science and make it untrustworthy.

What I see are people who are struggling to understand one of the most complex scientific questions of all time. I also see skepticism and questioning, and some honest disagreement at the cutting edge of this scientific field.

But I also see general agreement on the big picture: We humans have already altered the climate system in a very big way that will eventually remake the outlines of our world. That may happen a bit sooner than some think, or later than others do. But the changes are already underway.

As Ted Scambos put it, “we are ‘in’ global warming now,” and “we just bequeathed a rising ocean to a dozen generations.”

  • ReduceGHGs

    Despite what the vested fossil fuel interests want the public to believe human-caused climate change is well established science and has been for decades. Raising sea levels are one of many nasty effects. We need to curb emissions our neglect will force our future generations to deal with a much more harsh world. It’s immoral to TAKE from them because we are too apathetic or greedy to change our ways.

    Please join the efforts. Contact your members of Congress and make sure they aren’t among those blocking progress.


  • John Walker

    I remember in the 60’s and early 70’s, scientific models said we were on the brink of entering an ice age. I wonder why the average global temperature has not risen in the past 17 years?

    • ReDQLulz

      Uh…Averaged over all land and ocean surfaces, temperatures warmed roughly 1.53°F (0.85ºC) from 1880 to 2012

      • John Walker

        Maybe so for the past 132 years, but what about the past 17 years? And, the ice age has been retreating from North America for the past 10,000 years. So, we have been in global “warming” or climate change for quite some time now.

        • Tom Yulsman

          Actually John, that’s not accurate. Go here to see what the best available science has to say about the climate of the past 11,000 years: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/339/6124/1198.abstract

          Here’s a summary:

          “The pattern of temperatures shows a rise as the world emerged from the last deglaciation, warm conditions until the middle of the Holocene, and a cooling trend over the next 5000 years that culminated around 200 years ago in the Little Ice Age. Temperatures have risen steadily since then, leaving us now with a global temperature higher than those during 90% of the entire Holocene.”

          The point is that the climate did warm as the ice age ended, but for 5,000 years it gradually cooled — until we humans began influencing it. You might say, “Whew! What a good thing — we’re avoiding a new ice age.” And that may be true. But another point to consider is that this is an uncontrolled experiment on one of the life support systems of our planet. With that in mind, I think caution is called for.

          • Buddy199

            Does any research address how much of the 4.5 F increase in the past 150 years could be due to a natural rebound after the cooling swing of the past 5,000 years?

          • JH

            Hmmm…the “rebound” question…

            Skeptical as I am about catastrophic AGW, I’m not sure there’s much potential in the idea of a post LIA rebound to explain post-LIA temp rise. It’s not clear why we should suppose that, because climate – actually, global temperature – reaches some extreme, it should “rebound” from that extreme. You need a plausible mechanism.

            Natural variability has been suggested for the mechanism for the LIA. But a quick glance at the standard temp reconstructions for the past 2K years suggests the LIA is anomalous – it’s not just one extreme of random variation. And if natural variation is truly random, there’s no particular reason an extreme low temp should be followed by a long-term increase in temp.

            So what’s the mechanism? Wikipedia does a nice job covering the current ideas (search Little Ice Age): IMO, the LIA was likely caused by a combo of increased volcanic activity, orbital forcing, and depopulation / reforestation (Ruddiman’s hypothesis).

          • JH

            “until we humans began influencing it”

            Exactly when we humans began influencing it is still an open question. According to Ruddiman’s hypothesis, we were a significant cause of the LIA.

            It’s also worth pointing out that we don’t know the driving mechanisms for most of the climate variations during the Holocene.

            The Marcott et. al. Science paper that you reference took one hell of a thrashing for data issues. Not a paper to stand on, IMO.

    • Inky

      What scientific models showed the globe on the brink of entering an ice age? Popular magazine covers? And given the variability of the climate, a “pause” in the increase is common. Note that surface temperatures haven’t dropped and that other indicators are showing global temperature continue to increase.

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      • qcubed


  • jack frost

    On the simple side. Just consider the many billions of people covering the earth who weren’t here just 200 years ago. Our explosive population growth coupled with our effluent and vast industrial pollution created daily must have a negative effect on the planet. It may not be the sole reason for warming–but it sure doesn’t help.

    Over the last 2 Million years the Earth’s weather has been mostly on the cool side with many Ice Ages. Usually a warm temperature spike precedes each Ice Age or each exit from an Interglacial, as we are now in one. Rather than bringing on a long period of global warming I think we are accelerating our entry into an Ice Age which will follow a brief warming.

    • twobitcoder

      So says Jack Frost.

    • samf1953

      F the planet. Some a$$hole Islamic $hithead will get a nuke and end it long before we cook it.

  • Curious

    We owe the aggregated people of 2214 and beyond a specific sea level? Why? How are people deriving an ethical problem here?

    • disqus_atlq8Zmtsd

      Cities like Miami and Boston have a real practical interest in it, not just an abstract moral qualm (Tom posted some interactive maps the other day that demonstrated this).

    • knowknot

      Is this the new tactic by Koch and Exxon?


  • windy2

    Tom you must be unaware of the research showing that how you ask questions can cause a biased response. For future reference when you ask an open ended question you should not include how you yourself would answer your question as this may influence the answer from the respondent. In court this is known as leading the witness. Ask any good lawyer about this.

    This is one of the indicators I look for in determining a good journalist from a not so good journalists which I have spoken to you about in the past.

  • windy2

    Re: “You could argue that scientists felt this way more than a decade ago (esp. polar scientists)”

    Those that read actual science know this already and it is no surprise to them. It is even noted in one of the studies:

    “Resting atop a deep marine basin, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has long been considered prone to instability.”

    “This glacier and the immediately adjacent and rapidly thinning Pine Island Glacier (2, 3) were identified as potentially unstable several decades ago (17).”

    The above excerpts are from, ‘Marine Ice Sheet Collapse Potentially Under Way for the Thwaites Glacier Basin, West Antarctica’. Notice they are still using the term “potentially the same as they have for the decades that they refer to in the study.
    What is happening happened in past interglacials and that this was not a surprise to scientists familiar with interglacial history.

  • windy2

    “we are continuing to add heat to the oceans, correct?”

    There are studies that indicate the Antarctic is currently 7F degrees colder than past interglacials and that the Arctic ocean was 14.4F degrees warmer during the Eemian. What you should have asked is how many joules of heat have humans added to the ocean, most of which Trenberth says went into the deep ocean and what are the probabilities for WAIS melt with and without the amount of joules of heat added by humans?

    Again Tom you seem to ask question in a biased manner in an effort to fish for the answers that you want rather than ask objective questions.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    The Ozone Hole (Dobson units: 220 DU baseline, 105 DU current) went wild after safe and effective Freons were replaced with “ecological equivalent” hydrochlorofluorocarbons. HCFS are crappy working fluids, corrosive, hepatotoxic, potent injectors of chlorine into the stratosphere, and astounding infrared absorbers in formerly open atmospheric IR windows. HCFCs are an Official triumph! (and patent-protected expensive. Patents expire. Flammable toxic expensive hydrofluoroolefins are mandated. Go lubricate that compressor.)

    Let’s do that for the Greenhouse Effect, Global Warming, Climate Change, KLIMATE KAOS! The Carbon Tax on Everything burns $trillions where HCFCs burned $billions. It is obvious that burning $100 bills affords more warmth than burning singles. Theory says this inverts for burning $1000 bills.

  • samf1953

    Five reasons voters don’t believe what the White House says on climate change:

    1. Overreach. The White House doesn’t just want it both ways, it wants it every way. Increasingly, when there is a topical weather event, be it a warm typhoon in the Pacific or a cold snap in the United States, we hear it is caused by global warming. But non-events, such as fewer tropical storms becoming hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico or the frustrating, inconvenient truth that there hasn’t been any warming in the past 15 years, are dismissed as meaningless because we are told you must evaluate climate change over the long term. On Tuesday, President Obama even took time to meet with local and national weather reporters as a way of emphasizing the effects of global warming on today’s weather. The left is inconsistent in its selection of what factors and events “prove” that manmade global warming is real.

    2. Hypocrisy. Voters notice that the founding father of the global warming movement, Al Gore, has become fabulously wealthy by selling out to Middle Eastern oil and gas interests. Voters notice the mansions, private planes and the super-wealthy lifestyle. And Gore is not the only global warming hypocrite. I would guess that after he leaves office, President Obama will never again fly on a commercial airline – and he will probably be traveling by Global Expresses, Gulfstreams and the occasional large Falcon, not even on the more modest, smaller private jets. Voters are on to the fact that the global warming crusaders want us to pay more and live with less — but, of course, the rules don’t apply to the politicians who want everybody else to sacrifice. Not to mention, the people who insult and belittle anyone who has a question about the “science” of manmade global warming are often the same people who categorically dismiss the scientific proof of the viability, safety and reliability of nuclear energy. I have a little test for the global warming crusaders: If you’re not for nuclear energy and against ice cream, your commitment to the cause is questionable.

    3. The global warming cause fits too nicely with the president’s left-wing political agenda. The prescriptions for dealing with climate change are the same policy objectives the left has promoted for other reasons for at least the past 25 years. That is, redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, anti-growth, anti-development regulations, etc. Because they don’t have much support from voters, the left has to advance its cause through surreptitious maneuvering rather than forthright advocacy of its specific global warming policies. The left never answers the questions of who pays, how much and for what result.

    4. A lack of faith in foreign cooperation. Absent any verifiable, enforceable global warming treaty, any unilateral moves by the United States would be pointless. After all, the left wants us to believe that global warming really is global and that fossil fuels burned in distant lands are every bit as harmful as they are when they are utilized here at home. I would love to see a poll that asks American voters if they think American tax dollars should be spent on global warming remedies in foreign lands. Of course, we all know the vast majority of Americans would say no. Some say the United States should lead by example, but does anybody believe that if we affirmatively harm our own economy, others will somehow think that is a noble sacrifice and follow suit? The very notion is ridiculous.

    5. This administration lacks credibility. For a long time, we have said in America, “If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we do X, Y or Z?” Well, in the Obama era, that adage has morphed into, “If he couldn’t get a Web site right, how are we supposed to believe he knows how to control the climate?” Who really believes that a massive government tax and reordering of the economy in the name of stopping global warming or climate change or whatever will go as planned and the world’s thermostat will adjust to something the Democrats find more acceptable? Answer: Almost nobody. Voters don’t believe what the White House says on this issue in part because it has not been credible on so many other important issues. We’ve heard everything from “you can keep your health-care plan” to there is a “red line” in Syria. Why should anyone believe the White House now?

    Voters aren’t stupid. They know when they are not being leveled with. And all the bluster, intimidation and angry frothing won’t make their doubts go away or make the Obama administration any more believable.

  • No-Mo-BO

    All more CO2 in the atmosphere will do is make the plants grow better. ‘Climate change’ was coined by Al Gore as a means to sell carbon credits to idiots from a company that HE owns most of the stock in.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Gene Partlow

    A problem exists with the above cautionaries that it will
    only happen over 200 or 500 years. The problem is
    that nothing, repeat, nothing like this has ever happened
    in geologic history, short of an asteroid strike as at the
    K-T boundary or massive flood basalts. We are literally
    throwing a highly nonlinear global climate system out
    of whack at unprecedented rates. We simply cannot
    trust that we are not approaching something like an
    accelerating catastrophe a la Rene Thom.

  • Media Mentions

    Obviously GW presents several huge issues, one of the key ones being the challenge of figuring out exactly what’s going on. With a question of this mass and complexity, it’s easy to get lost in the facts and demand action based on biased/incomplete information. Then again, it’s this complexity that makes informed debates so fun, a personal favourite being PressReader’s (http://www.pressreader.com/profile/Spotlight/bookmarks/global_warming). What I see going on now though, have to say, has me a little on edge and I’ve been brushing global warming off for the past 10 years.

  • qcubed

    AGW is not real, and yet, the Army Corp of Engineers is taking steps to protect military bases from sea level increases…Hmmmm.



ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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