Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Sea Level Rise Conundrum – Greenland’s Cycles

After France fell to the Nazis, Britain desperately prepared for an invasion. The United States shuttled hundreds of planes to England via the Snowball Route, a series of secret bases on Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland. But in 1942 one squadron never completed the journey. A sudden July storm forced 8 planes to land on a slushy glacier surface in southeast Greenland. Although the crews were rescued, later attempts failed to locate the Lost Squadron. The glaciers had ferried the planes miles downstream as they were increasingly buried in ice. One plane was finally recovered in 1992 and the second, recovered in 2018, was under more than 300 feet of ice. Southeastern Greenland had been gaining ice at a rate of 4 feet per year. 

In contrast, climate scientists project Greenland will increasingly lose ice as CO2concentrations increase. Indeed, its melting ice has been the biggest contributor to accelerating sea level rise for 2 decades.  But that is rapidly reversing. City planners along California’s coast are struggling with competing theories. How much sea level rise should we plan for?  Fearing an accelerating rise, some argue we abandon the coast. Others argue, and I agree, we should protect our homes with seawalls. But how high must we build? Understanding Greenland’s contribution is critical.

If we removed all ice from Greenland, the land would reveal a bowl-shape. A ring of mountains paralleling the coastline prevents the ice cap from sliding into the sea, no matter what scary climate stories suggest. Several gaps in those mountains allow glaciers to transport ice from inside “the bowl” to the oceans. Given enough time the Lost Squadron may well have been shuttled out to sea. Whenever more ice accumulates inside the “bowl” than leaks out via glaciers, Greenland gains ice and sea levels fall.  If more ice reaches the ocean than accumulates inland, sea level rises. But predicting any imbalance is difficult.

During the last 100 years, Greenland oscillated between gaining and losing ice. Its greatest loss raised sea level by 0.07 inches in 2012, about half the total sea level rise of 0.12 inches a year. That accelerated loss was trumpeted as just what climate models predict. However, Greenland’s melt rates then declined and by 2017 it was gaining enough ice to slightly reduce sea level rise.

Furthermore, the cause of rapidly melting ice since the 1990s was fewer clouds. Fewer summer clouds allow more solar heating and cycles of atmospheric circulation naturally alter cloud cover. In addition, researchers reported Greenland’s ice-free regions experienced various warming and cooling trends over the past 15 years, but concluded if there was any general trend, “it is mostly a cooling”. They also admitted they “cannot differentiate between anthropogenic forcing [in other words: warming from human added CO2] and natural fluctuations.”

A similar warming and melting episode occurred decades earlier. Climate scientists determined Greenland had warmed most rapidly between 1920 and 1940. As reported by the IPCC, “temperature has risen significantly since the early 1990s, reaching values similar to those in the 1930s.”Regards accelerated rates of sea level rise from melting ice, the IPCC reported “It is likely that similarly high rates occurred between 1920 and 1950.”  Intriguingly, much lower CO2concentrations still resulted in similar warming, melting and rates of sea level rise.

Until Greenland’s temperatures and ice-melt exceed the 1930s episode, scientists cannot distinguish between natural variability and human-caused warming. The current trend is too short to be certain, but the past 2 years suggest Greenland is now entering a cooling cycle. In fact, based on my analyses of published scientific reports regards decades-long cycles of migrating fish into and out of the Arctic, and circulation effects of Atlantic oscillations, I boldly blogged in 2014, we would soon see Greenland begin to gain ice, as it is now doing.

Of course, that prediction was attacked by the ill-informed. They claimed my analyses of published scientific observations was cherry-picking, pseudo-science and I ignored the (mythical) 97% consensus.  My response is always, there is absolutely no consensus regards climate’s sensitivity to a doubling of CO2. Some IPCC experts predict 1 degree warming, others predict as much as 5 degrees. Nonetheless the scientific method demands, to prove rising CO2is causing an effect like melting Greenland ice, we must show current changes exceed past natural variability. But most people are unaware that has yet to happen. 

We are an adaptable people. Seawalls we build to protect our coastal homes for the next hundred years, likely need to plan for just 8 inches of sea level rise, but certainly not 5 or 10 feet. Yet to be confident, we need another 20 years to determine the contribution of natural cycles.

Jim Steele is retired director of the Sierra Nevada Field Campus, SFSU