Antarctica, the Big Kahuna


There is no getting around the evidence that:

(1) CO2 absorbed into the oceans is killing coral reefs, home to nine million species;

(2) one-half the 20,000-year-old glaciers in the Andes have completely disappeared over the past 20 years, threatening the water resources for 100 million people;

(3) the world’s highest ski area, Chacaltaya (Bolivia), is bone dry and permanently closed because the glacier is gone;

(4) the enormous Columbia Glacier in Alaska has retreated 10 miles up the fjord in the past 30 years;

(5) the Arctic Ice Sheet is one-third its thickness of 30 years ago and it is expected to be ice-free within a decade, opening up a new bonanza of exploration for oil and gas;

(6) Greenland’s summer melt lakes are splitting apart surface ice and cascading down crevasses at the speed of Niagara Falls, possibly all the way onto bedrock one to two miles below that could be sliding the ice sheet towards the ocean;

(7) global drought conditions caused by an out-of-kilter climate are threatening humankind’s basic food supplies as agriculture becomes parched from Russia to Syria to the U.S. and around the world;

(8) storm patterns have become unpredictably destructive, e.g., New York City, and costly.

It is no accident that climate change is in an acceleration phase since the 1980s. That’s approximately when China did a U-turn, deciding to adopt state capitalism and special economic zones of capitalism. Ever since, CO2 emissions have been on a tear. China adds one new coal plant weekly and 40,000 new automobiles per day to the worldwide CO2 mix.

Remarkably, climate change is rapidly occurring in real time right before our eyes. Fortunately, so far, Antarctica has been impacted less by the changing climate than Greenland and the Arctic. However, it may be a good idea not to throw caution to the wind because the definition of climate change is to expect the unexpected.

The Big Kahuna

Antarctica, the only continent that experiences six months of total darkness and six months of continuous daylight, is the coldest, driest, and windiest of the seven continents. It has the highest average elevation of all continents. It is a desert with an annual precipitation of only eight inches along the coastlines but much less inland. The continent is huge at 5.4 million square miles—the size of the United States plus Mexico combined—and temperatures can reach -129 Farenheit (F.). The average summer temperature is 20 degrees F. and the average winter temperature is -30 F.

Antarctica is covered by a sheet of ice one-to-two miles thick. Ten years ago a drill core of 9,396 feet (nearly 2 miles deep) recovered ice that scientists say is 530,000 years old (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica-EPICA, Environment News, March 14, 2002).

Antarctica is the Big Kahuna of the climate change equation and of the conundrum of rising sea levels because “Glaciologists are still far from divining the fate of Earth’s ice in a warming world, but they have finally agreed on what the past century’s warming has done to the great ice sheets and it isn’t pretty” (Richard A. Kerr, “Experts Agree Global Warming Melting the World Rapidly,” Science, November 30, 2012).

Antarctica is the world’s largest ice sheet and “The ice sheets would raise sea levels by more than 200 feet if they completely melted over centuries—not likely, but even a tenth of that would have catastrophic impacts on coastal areas” (Miguel Llanos, Environment and Weather Editor, NBC News, November 29, 2012; “Antarctica, Greenland Ice Definitely Melting into Sea, and Speeding up, Experts Warn,” taken from a study published in Science).

The National Academy of Sciences predicted in 2009 that seas could rise 1.3 to 4.6 feet by 2100, depending on how the planet responds to the changing climate. However, a quick perusal of scientific research over the decades casts doubt on any predictions because, as time marches on, scientists increasingly express surprise and concern over how much faster climate change is occurring, typically stating, “This is happening much faster than we thought it would just a few years ago.”

In a recent article, Richard A. Kerr wrote: “Glaciologists are especially concerned about the acceleration of losses…. In West Antarctica, the accelerating loss comes from the accelerating rush of glaciers to the sea, probably brought on by warmer seawater melting the underside of the glaciers’ floating ice shelves. The new analysis… also makes it clear that losses from Greenland and West Antarctica have been accelerating, showing that some ice sheets are disconcertingly sensitive to warming” (“Experts Agree Global Warming Melting the World Rapidly,” Science, November 2012).

When Antarctica was Green

A university-led study by Alan Buis (Jet Propulsion Lab, Pasadena), Robert Perkins (University of Southern California) and Zac Lemoine, (Louisiana State University), in concert with NASA, discovered in June 2012 that the ancient Antarctica climate of 15-20 million years ago—40 million years after dinosaurs became extinct—was much warmer and wetter than previously understood. The climate was suitable to support substantial vegetation, including stunted trees along the edges of the continent. Studies showed temperatures as high as 45 degrees F. during the Miocene Period.

“Warm conditions during the middle Miocene are thought to be associated with carbon dioxide levels of around 400 to 600 parts per million (ppm). In 2012, carbon dioxide levels climbed to 393 ppm, the highest they’ve been in the past several million years” (Alan Buis, et al).

Renewable Power

Fossil fuels—i.e., oil, natural gas, and coal—currently account for 84 percent of all energy consumed worldwide. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, it will take 70 years—assuming the current rate of conversions—to replace electrical generating capacity with renewables, including hydroelectric, wind, solar, wave, geothermal, biomass, and waste.

However, that rate of conversions can be dramatically accelerated. According to Mark Jacobson (Senior Fellow, Woods Institute for the Environment, Stanford University) and Dr. Mark Delucchi (Institution of Transportation Studies, University of California/Davis), the U.S. Energy Information Administration timeline can be trimmed by 30-50 years. They claim the entire conversion from fossil fuels to renewables can be accomplished in 20-40 years. “Based on our findings, there are no technological or economic barriers to converting the entire world to clean, renewable energy sources,” said Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering: “It is a question of whether we have the societal and political will” (“The World Can be Powered by Alternative Energy, Using Today’s Technology, in 20-40 years,” Mark Z. Jacobson, Stanford University News, January 26, 2011).

The Jacobson/Delucchi plan provides for wind (50 percent) and solar energy (40 percent) contributing 90 percent of electricity with 10 percent from other sources such as hydro. The researchers envision vehicles, ships, and trains powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cells. Aircraft would be powered with liquid hydrogen.

The pitfall to renewable energy has always been variability of wind and solar power, but Jacobson foresees no problem. The variability problem refers to meeting requirements for the “base load,” which is the minimum amount of energy required to meet customer demand at any given hour of the day. Jacobson says this would be handled by creating a Super Grid with long-distance transmission and precise computer-generated management that is orchestrated to fill in the gaps. Whether the gap is filled by hydro, solar, or wind, the Super Grid would make allowance for weakness in one part of the grid by accessing strength in another, or converting to hydro to pick up the slack. The point is: With modern-day computerization techniques the Super Grid can be programmed to always meet the base load, regardless of weather conditions in any part of the country.

Jacobson and Delucchi calculated the number of wind turbines needed to implement their plan, as well as the number of solar plants, rooftop photovoltaic cells, geothermal, hydroelectric, tidal and wave-energy installations. The footprint needed to power 100 percent of the world for all purposes from wind, water, and solar resources is about 0.4 percent of the world’s land (mostly solar footprint) and the spacing between installations is another 0.6 percent of the world’s land for wind-turbine spacing. In total, by utilizing 1 percent of the world’s land, humankind could have 100 percent renewable, non-polluting, non-putrid air, and clean oceans forever. “This really involves a large scale transformation…. It would require an effort comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate highway system,” according to Jacobsen. However, with the upcoming energy conversion, this is not a requirement. All of the technology is fully operational and ready for installation.

A Zogby Analytics Poll, as of November 15, 2012, shows that, among all voters surveyed across party lines, renewables received twice the support as fossil fuels.

Also, in states where the XL Pipeline played a prominent role in the November election, the anti-pipeline candidates swamped the pro-pipeline candidates. For example, in Florida, Senator Bill Nelson was repeatedly attacked by his opponent for opposing the Keystone Pipeline. The Nelson race was considered a “showdown on Keystone” and Nelson won in a blowout. In fact, all the senators who opposed the Keystone Pipeline won their races this past November. Sixty-five percent of respondents for the Zogby Poll said the political leaders must act now in order to address future climate problems.

The public will for conversion from dirty fossil fuels to clean renewables is solid and the technology is available. The only missing component is political leadership.

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Robert Hunziker is a freelance writer. He lives in California.