The Extreme Ice Nexus

Glaciers everywhere…at the Rockies, and the Andes, and Alps, and Himalayas are in their death throes.” This is a quote from Extreme Ice, a film that dramatizes the glacial behavior of the world’s melting ice.

Extreme Ice aired on PBS as a Nova/National Geographic special, on December 28, 2011. The opening voiceover sets the tone for the dreadful truth behind recent documented trends: “In the extreme icebound regions of the earth, something unprecedented is happening, everywhere glaciers and ice sheets have been breaking apart, accelerating towards the oceans faster than ever imagined possible.”

You may be thinking, “We’ve seen this movie before,” ever since Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth won an Academy Award in 2006. However, we now know he was way too circumspect with his assumptions because the world’s largest ice sheet, Antarctica, only started losing ice steadily in 2006, thus missing a starring role in the documentary.

Forensic Evidence of Rapid Melting

Extreme Ice documents, with forensic evidence, how quickly the world’s ice is melting. To capture the progress of melting ice, photographer James Balog set up 26 time-lapsed cameras on glaciers across the northern hemisphere, capturing live footage of glacial movement by shooting a frame every daylight-hour for three years. The resulting images show the world’s ice breaking apart and spewing into the world’s oceans at an alarming accelerating rate.

The film is the first video recording of the actual movement of glaciers over long periods of time and, according to Balog, “We have forensic evidence of how rapidly things are happening.” According to scientist Richard Alley of Penn State University, “It is the speed of the melt that is most astonishing.”

The film graphically tracks Alaska’s Columbia, one of the largest ocean- feeding glaciers in North America. The Columbia is hemorrhaging so quickly that the glacier has receded 10 miles up the fjord over the past 30 years and, most alarming, it is now moving at a speed of 50 feet per day, 8 times faster than 30 years ago. The Columbia is already beyond the “tipping point”; it is a dying glacier, spewing colossal quantities of fresh water, via ice flows, into the ocean.

However, Columbia is a small stepchild to Greenland and Antarctica. Up until a few years ago, scientists thought these humongous ice sheets were too big and too dense to be an immediate risk. However, the latest evidence is making them re-think this viewpoint.

The wakeup call occurred a few years ago at the West Antarctic Peninsula where a Rhode Island-sized slab sheared off the ice shelf. According to Alley, based on previous calculations, this was not supposed to happen this soon. As further confirming evidence of this alarming trend, in February 2012 NASA reported sighting an 18-mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica. The crack is up to 800 feet across and 200 feet deep and growing. Scientists figure it will lop off Antarctica within months, creating an iceberg bigger than New York City, projected to be 350 square miles, floating northward, melting into the ocean.

Here’s What’s At Risk

Teams of researchers at the University of Colorado, by studying centuries-old ice cores, which trap and measure carbon dioxide levels over time, in conjunction with geologic fossil isotopes indicative of ancient water levels, have determined what happened 125,000 years ago with remarkable accuracy, when temperatures increased by seven degrees Fahrenheit and sea levels rose ten feet higher. That event was caused by a change in the earth’s positioning around the sun. Recent records show similar greenhouse gases in the atmosphere today are even higher than 125,000 years ago.

The most immediate threat of sea levels flooding coastal cities of the world comes from Greenland, where temperatures are up five degrees Fahrenheit over the past decade, and, according to the scientists in Extreme Ice, “…its next move could be the game changer for rising sea levels.”

Recently, a team of scientists made a breakthrough by discovering the “plumbing” for the numerous melt lakes that appear on the landscape during the summer months in Greenland. For the first time ever, they actually witnessed and measured a vanishing melt lake (researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the University of Washington also documented this effect in 2008).

For years, satellite images of Greenland during the summer have shown huge lakes on the surface only to have the lakes disappear the following day. Scientists assumed the lakes were reabsorbed and refrozen into the ice sheet, but this is not the case.

A research unit in Extreme Ice camped out next to one of the melt lakes, which can run several miles wide and 50 feet deep. They submerged “pressure loggers” in the lake in order to follow the course of the water and, to their astonishment, the lake abruptly drained dry within 40 minutes, disappearing in a flash of geologic time.

The following day they witnessed another melt lake drain off in similar fashion, a huge waterfall cascading down a crevasse to a mile below to the bedrock. Meanwhile, the scientists experienced firsthand, on the otherwise noiseless Greenland landscape, “loud booms and crackling pops and instantaneous cracks fissure the ice,” a thunderous and frightening real life exhibition of nature’s overwhelming power and force.

This sudden runoff of melt water, in turn, lifts and lubricates the ice sheet, speeding up the ice flow to the ocean. Here’s the disastrous part of this scenario: Greenland’s ice sheet measures 1,500 by 500 miles and over one mile thick. If Greenland melted in its entirety, sea levels would rise 23 feet.

Sources of Dissent and Public Confusion

Nature’s reaction to human-made artificial global warming does not come as a surprise to the scientists in this film, but the severity and speed of nature’s reaction sends a chill down their spines. The public, however, in general, has difficulty accepting the gravity of this threat, in part, because whenever a cold spell hits, especially in America, the same extreme right wing mouthpieces make the same lame jokes about global warming.

Additionally, national broadcasters like Fox News run misleading reports about global warming at every opportunity. For example, on February 9, 2012 Fox News broadcast, “Himalayan glaciers have lost no ice in the past 10 years, new study reveals.” Well, yes and no. The news story, taken from a report in Nature magazine—and out of context by Fox News—left out further explanatory statements by scientists. The Fox News story states, “The UN got it wrong on Himalayan glaciers—and the proof is finally here.”

Fox News had it wrong and here’s why. The referenced study, called GRACE, was conducted by satellites from 300 miles up and concluded the “Himalayas have barely melted at all in the past 10 years”—which is partially true. However, interviewed scientists explained how this simply improves their knowledge of the behavior of one part of the climate system, the high Himalayas. Since these mountains are at the highest elevation in the world, they will be impacted later than ice sheets and glaciers at lower elevations. Furthermore, GRACE is incapable of measuring glaciers smaller than 40 square miles, which is one of the acknowledged limitations to the study. There are other limitations to the study as well.

Meanwhile the lower elevation glaciers and ice sheets of the world are melting like ice cream cones in July, an inconvenient truth that Fox News chooses to ignore.

HKH Region

The Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region (HKH) encompasses more than four million square acres in eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan. This region is referred to as “the water tower of Asia,” feeding ten major river systems.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”) Fourth Assessment Report shows the HKH region still has major data gaps in terms of any climatic assessment. However, “The Status of Glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan Region,” by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (“ICIMD”), Katmandu, Nepal, November 2011, the first report to cover the entire region from a single consistent source, represents an important step in bridging data and information gaps about the HKH region.

The ICIMD report analyzed 28,500 glaciers and, according to the report, temperatures are increasing 2 to 8 times higher than the “global mean” warming over the past 100 years. “The glaciers in much of the region show signs of shrinking, thinning, and retreating.” Among other concerns, this is leading to the formation and expansion of glacial lakes, which could lead to an increase in the number of glacial lake outburst floods.

The Himalayas are so vast and complex, with glaciers increasing in size in some areas while in other areas there is evidence of dramatic shrinkage, it will take years to properly understand what is happening at such high elevations.

This is why, as documented in Extreme Ice, it is so important to grasp the true dimensions of the problem and it is crystal clear that ice melt on a worldwide basis is advancing at a much more alarming rate than Fox News attempted to portray by cherry-picking statements about the Himalayans from a report that explained otherwise.

Extreme Ice is stark, real-time photographic “court-room-type” evidence that global warming is melting glaciers and ice sheets faster than ever before realized, threatening coastal cities and the depletion of key water resources to the detriment of civilization. This film is a clarion call to halt artificial greenhouse gases because nature is once again reacting to the earth tilting just enough within its orbit to replicate its experience of 125,000 years ago when the oceans rose 10 feet. Science knows earth has not changed its positioning, but nature does not understand this.


Robert Hunziker lives in California and has published stories on the environment in Counterpunch and Firebrand Magazine.