What’s bad about melting ice sheets?

New York Times Imagine a huge slab of ice with an area of about 200 square miles – if it was ever to melt it would release torrents of water into the oceans. The problem is that it already is melting – scientists with the British Antarctic Survey discovered last week that an iceberg that big has just broken away from a major Antarctic ice sheet. Now that the ice has been separated from the ice sheet, it will quickly disintegrate, and before long it will all have melted.

CNN OK, so this iceberg might raise sea levels a fractional amount. But does it really mean anything in terms of the big picture? Or did the media just hype up the story to bring in some more page hits and viewers? Although this event alone is not going to be devastating for our planet, the fact that it happened raises a whole load of worrying issues.

For a start, it’s clear evidence that Antarctica is warming faster than pretty much anywhere else on our planet. Aside from melting ice, why does that matter? Well, it certainly does matter – already, the population of krill (tiny shrimp-like creatures) has been dropping quite substantially because of the warmer waters. Krill is the primary food of loads of other marine organisms, so kill the krill and you’re also killing a multitude of species of fish.

CNN Another effect that’s fascinating is that the warmer Antarctica gets, the more it snows, and that snow decreases the chance of penguin eggs hatching successfully. What? Rising temperatures increase snowfall? I know it sounds weird, but it’s true – warmer temperatures give the air a higher humidity, causing more snow to fall.

Carbon Dioxide, the gas the virtually all scientists believe is causing global warming, is also having a direct effect on animals, not just by increasing the temperatures. Water is really good at absorbing that dreaded greenhouse gas, but this has the unfortunate consequence of turning the water more acidic. That then means that organisms with shells get their shells weakened by the acid, as well as suffering loads of other knock-on effects. (Read more about the effects of acidic waters in my previous post – aptly named ‘Climate Change won’t just kill Polar Bears’)

You might think that this post was a bit depressing – but that’s not how I want you to feel. Hopefully it’ll inspire you to do something, and make you realize that you yourself can play a big part in stopping climate change going too far. I know we are capable of doing it, but can we be bothered? Can you be bothered? Go on, give it a try. 🙂

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Climate change won’t just kill Polar Bears

Polar bears could be extinct within 50 years because of human-induced climate change | Image: National Geographic

I’m as bad as anyone else at just thinking about polar bears and penguins when it comes to climate change. It’s just part of human nature that we’re always going to take far more interest in cute creatures, rather than things like… sea urchins.

Why should be worry about these squishy, colorful lumps? OK, as with all species, we should try to preserve them for the sake of biodiversity. But the thing about sea urchins is that so many other animals depend on them for food that if the sea urchins die off, a whole host of other marine organisms will also perish.

A new study has revealed that loads of marine life is suffering because of climate change, and not just because it’s getting warmer. Some of the extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is being absorbed into the oceans, turning the water more acidic. This acid reduces the amount of calcium carbonate available – without this vital mineral, organisms can’t create tough shells.

Sea urchin | Image: WikipediaSea urchins were the particular focus of the new study, which helped scientists much better understand the effects of global warming on marine life.

The acidic waters had quite a few knock-on effects on the urchins: because their shells were thinner, they were more susceptible to the increasing temperatures. As they had to devote more energy to developing thicker shells, other growth was hindered, and they started developing abnormal shapes and movement.

All in all, the message is that climate change will have an incredibly large number of impacts – it’s not just about the odd polar bear in the Arctic or a glacier in the Himalayas. At the end of the day, less sea urchins means less cod, which means less food for us. And there are many more stories like that of the sea urchin that are still waiting to be discovered.

Penguins… What else lives in Antarctica?

Penguins and seal on an island off Antarctica | Image: National Geographic

We all know penguins live in Antarctica, but what else? On land, pretty much nothing except the odd seabird or insect. But in the seas that surround the South Pole, a huge collection of intriguing and strange creatures inhabit the oceans.

Glass tulips | Image: National Geographic

Glass Tulips

Two new studies have revealed even more of these creatures’ strangeness – take a look at these ‘glass tulips’ (right) that are actually living animals.

Giant worms | Image: National Geographic

Giant worms

And then there are giant worms (left), 10 inches long, that look suspiciously like trilobites, ancient creatures which roamed the oceans millions of years ago.

Icy fish

Here’s a weird fish, (below) that lives in the depths of the Antarctic oceans. Little is known about this fish yet, but some fish living in icy waters have a biological antifreeze that circulates around their body to stop them from icing up.

The woman who discovered this fish named it in honor of her fiance… I hope he didn’t take it as an insult.Icy fish | Image: National Geographic

Scientists: Arctic sea ice will disappear in only 10 years

Melting ice | Image: Guardian Unlimited Once the Arctic sea ice starts melting, it will only take 10 years to disappear completely, according to a new report from the world’s leading climate scientists. That’s a shame, but it’s not going to happen for decades, right?

It depends whether you’re optimistic or not, because there’s a 50% chance that it will start happening in the very imminent future – meaning that there is a 50% chance that by as early as 2025, all the Arctic sea ice will be gone. Completely.

Why would it take the ice so little time to melt? The problem is that once the ice starts melting, a greater area of the Arctic is covered in water rather than ice. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina | Image: National GeographicWhereas ice reflects most of the sun’s energy, water absorbs a large amount of it, leading to further warming. It quickly turns into a runaway cycle, and after just a decade of melting it’s all gone.

But why does it really matter for humanity? Arctic ice melt affects not just polar bears, but also humans. If the whole of the Arctic was to melt, sea levels would rise by as much as 59cm (2 feet), causing serious flooding in coastal cities such as New York and London. As for New Orleans… they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Other timescales for climate change effects given in the report include 50 years until the death of the Amazon rainforest, and the same amount of time until the death of the Boreal forest across Canada, Alaska and Russia. Remember that that’s 50 years from when the tipping point is reached, not 50 years from now. But it may not be very far in the future from now. (Click here for an excellent interactive map detailing the widespread impacts of climate change)

 Penguins in Antarctica, which is also starting to melt | Image: National Geographic

I’m a firm believer in protecting our environment before it gets too late. I think humans should reduce CO2 emissions at all costs, but many people disagree. What do you think? Is it all completely natural, or is it wrong for developed countries to take action while China builds a new coal-fired power station every week? Post your comments below.