Climate Change Continues

Climate change is still in the news. So is a growing crack in an Antarctic ice sheet, and a Ladybird Book co-authored by England’s Prince Charles.

The book, “Climate Change,” is a Ladybird Expert Book: written with adults in mind.

  1. A Cracking Ice Shelf
  2. Brunt Breakup
  3. A New Book by Prince Charles

This post has an afterword, mostly my take on climate change and being human:

The Coming Ice Age

I remember when the coming ice age was a hot topic: for science geeks, anyway.

Growing glaciers, miles deep, would spread from Earth’s arctic regions.

Grinding southward, they would obliterate cities and civilization in their inexorable advance.

It made for interesting conversation, forgettable science fiction potboilers, and at least one bit of cover art that I liked. The tale’s premise was that a city on whacking great tractor treads was trundling southward. I can’t remember the title or author.

More serious stories assumed that we didn’t survive, or had to start over in the tropics.

That was the late 1950s and early 1960s. Some folks were talking about “global cooling” in the 1970s, based on a cooling trend from the 40s to early 70s.1

These days, “climate change” has replaced “global warming” as a political slogan, and it’s easy to assume that the whole ball of wax is a bunch of hooey.

Reality isn’t quite what’s in the headlines, and that’s another topic.

“Last” Glacial Maximum?

(From Hansen et al./NASA, used w/o permission.)

If someone asked if I “believe in” climate change, I’d have answer yes — and no.

I don’t “believe in” climate change in the sense that I think it explains my existence, provides a reason for living, or belongs at the top of my priorities list.

On the other hand, I think Earth’s climate is changing. I am also quite sure that the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old; Earth isn’t flat; Adam and Eve aren’t German; and thinking is not a sin. (September 23, 2016; August 28, 2016; July 22, 2016)

(From Robert A. Rohde, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(A reconstruction of recent temperatures, from tree rings and other data.)

I’m also reasonably certain that Earth has getting warmer, on average, since about 1910. It’s certainly warmer now than it was during the Little Ice Age.

We’re enjoying, on average, temperatures Earth hasn’t experienced since the Medieval Warm Period.

It’s certainly warmer now than about 26,500 years back, when glaciers covered my ancestral homelands; and most of today’s Minnesota.

We call it the Last Glacial Maximum, since it’s the most recent. But there’s no guarantee that continental ice sheets won’t come back. Given what we’re learning, it’s likely that the current interglacial period will end ‘soon,’ by geologic standards.2

Let’s put that in perspective.

Milutin Milanković: (Almost) Right

(From Lisiecki and Raymo (2005), via Wikimedia Commons; under GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later; used w/o permission.)

That graph shows average temperatures at Vostok Station in Antarctica — based on analysis of an oxygen isotope in deep-sea ocean sediments. It’s almost certainly not spot-on accurate: but my guess is that it’s pretty close to what actually happened.

More about Earth’s most recent five million years of climate change:

The graph’s “41 kyr cycle” is a Milankovitch cycle: variations in how far Earth’s rotational axis wanders.

Milutin Milanković noticed correlation between these changes and Earth’s climate in the 1920s. His theory wasn’t popular in my youth, but data collected since the ’60s shows that he was on the right track. Earth’s climate changed the way he said it did — almost.

The “100 kyr cycle” is another cyclic variation in Earth’s axis: and an issue for folks trying to make sense of Milanković cycles.

Earth’s equator is tilted 23.44 degrees from the ecliptic today. It tilts up to 24.5 degrees, and is on its way to the 22.1 degree minimum at the moment. The cycle takes about 41,000 years: hence the “41 kyr (kiloyear)” name.

So — once we know everything there is to know about Earth’s last five million years, we’ll fully understand climate change? Probably not.

Our home is much older: and hasn’t been the same since the dinosaurs died.

Climate Change After the Dinosaurs

(From Robert A. Rohde, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Again, this graph comes from analysis of deep-sea sediments. It probably isn’t an exact fit with reality: but I think it’s reasonably accurate.

Earth’s current ice age started about 2,600,000 years back. The Isthmus of Panama’s closing was probably one of the triggering events.

So was the Tibetan plateau getting higher: maybe.

Continental glaciers have been spreading, melting, and spreading again ever since. Scientists figure positive and negative feedback processes have been keeping the cycle going. Exactly what those processes are is something we’re still learning.

Vastly oversimplifying the matter, we get more snow near the poles when Earth’s oceans are warmer. Sometimes the snow doesn’t entirely melt during summer. Snow and ice build up until we get glaciers scraping toward the equator.

Much of Earth’s water is tied up in glaciers by then, so sea level is lower. Between a slightly smaller ocean and colder climate, there isn’t as much snow falling: which slows down glacier production.

Somehow or other, Earth warms up and the cycle starts again. I gather that scientists still aren’t sure about what warms things up.

There’s evidence that it didn’t warm up once, more than 650,000,000 years ago.3 One of the problems scientists have with Snowball Earth is that they aren’t at all sure how Earth could have warmed up again.

It did, obviously, and I’ll get back to that.

It’s hardly surprising that we don’t fully understand ice ages.

The first inkling we had that they existed goes back to 1742, when Pierre Martel listened to what folks living in the Alps said about boulders of one sort of rock sitting on a different kind of rock.

I suspect we’re learning how much we don’t know almost as fast as we’re solving existing puzzles these days. The good news is that we’re learning: a lot, very fast.

One more graph, and I’ll get this week’s science news; and the new climate change book.

A Half-Billion Years of Climate Change

(From Dragons flight, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)

Once again, that’s a pretty good estimate of Earth’s average temperature, based on analysis of oxygen isotopes.

The Phaerozoic is what scientists call Earth’s current geologic eon. It started 541,000,000 years ago, give or take 1,000,000, when critters like trilobites and reef-building archaeocyathans appeared.

Earth in humanity’s day is colder than it’s been since the Andean-Saharan glaciation, 460,000,000 to 430,000,000 years ago — when Earth’s second-largest cluster of extinction events happened.

The big one happened about a quarter-billion years later. (September 30, 2016)

We’re accustomed to a world where a mile-deep glacier covers most of Greenland, which isn’t normal for this planet.

Earth has been colder than it is today, but not by much: apart from that Snowball Earth thing I mentioned. The last I heard, scientists still aren’t sure if we’re in an interglacial period: or if the Quaternary glaciation is finally over.

One of the most sensible things I’ve read about Earth and climate change is what Oregon State University’s Christo Buizert said, discussing a polar climate cycle: “We still don’t know….” (BBC News (May 5, 2015))

1. A Cracking Ice Shelf

(From John Sonntag/NASA , via NPR, used w/o permission.)
(“A NASA scientist with project IceBridge took this photo of the crack in November.”

An Ice Shelf Is Cracking In Antarctica, But Not For The Reason You Think
Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR (January 16, 2017)

“A group of scientists is gathering today in the U.K. to discuss a slab of ice that’s cracking in Antarctica. The crack could soon split off a frozen chunk the size of Delaware….

“…The ice shelf Sevestre was studying is called Larsen C, and it now has a massive 90-mile crack running through it.

“‘The big rift is slicing the ice shelf from top to bottom,’ Sevestre says. It’s now a third of a mile deep, and as wide across as 25 highway lanes.

“But this is not just another sad climate change story. It’s more complicated….”

Folks wrote about an antarctic region long before 1820. That’s when a folks on a ship spotted the continent.

Which ship was first depends on who’s talking. It was one captained by von Bellingshausen, Imperial Russian Navy, Edward Bransfield, England’s Royal Navy; or Nathaniel Palmer, a sealer out of Stonington, Connecticut.

I’d like to think Vikings got that far, and didn’t bother to file a report with the North Sea Empire. That’s unlikely, though, and yet another topic.

Anyway, Aristotle mentioned an antarctic region in his Meteorology.

Marinus of Tyre invented equirectangular projection, gets credit for being the first to assign latitude longitude to each spot on his map. He also gave us the term “Antarctic,” the Arctic Circle’s opposite.4

My hat’s off to Rae Ellen Bichell and NPR, for this sentence: “It’s more complicated.”

I suspect that reality is, in a sense, very simple. For example, we keep finding close approximations to circles, spheres, and logarithmic spirals. Physicists keep getting closer to a working theory of everything, and that’s yet again another topic.

We’re also learning that reality is, in another sense, very complex: and interrelated.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
(“My First Summer in the Sierra,” John Muir (1869) via Wikiquote)

“Simply a Natural Event”

(From Jeremy Harbeck/NASA, via NPR, used w/o permission.)
(“Calving is a natural process that produces icebergs, as seen here with the Getz Ice Shelf in West Antarctica.”

“…’A lot of things are going on deep inside the ice,’ says Adrian Luckman, a glaciologist at Swansea University in the U.K. He’s also leading a project to track changes in the ice shelf.

“Luckman says climate change is certainly influencing this region. Larsen C used to have two neighbors to the north, Larsen A and Larsen B. As the air and water warmed, those ice shelves started melting and then splintered into shards in 1995 and 2002.

“But the crack in Larsen C seems to have happened on its own, for different reasons.

“‘This is probably not directly attributable to any warming in the region, although of course the warming won’t have helped,’ says Luckman. ‘It’s probably just simply a natural event that’s just been waiting around to happen.’…”
(Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR)

The odds are very good that at least part of this ice shelf will break off in the next few months, years, or decades. It won’t be the first time something like this happened, and almost certainly won’t be the last.

Quite a few glaciers and ice sheets eventually meet open water. As their edges get pushed out, bits and pieces crack off. The process is called ice calving. Scientists study ice calving, tourists watch it, and surfers ride the waves kicked up by falling ice.

Calving on an epic scale happened during October 1998, when a Delaware-size chunk of the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf broke off. It’s (remotely) possible that part or all of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could break off.5

Maybe we’ll see a movie based on that idea. Think “Absolute Zero: The Day After 2012.”

Then the stars could testify before Congress, lending their wisdom to climate change talks. Or maybe not.

The Larsen Ice Shelf is part of the Wenddel Sea’s northwest coast, more-or-less across from the Brunt Ice Shelf. The Brunt Shelf is cracking, too.

2. Brunt Breakup

(From British Antarctic Survey, used w/o permission.)
(“Graphic showing Halley’s current site in relation to its new site further inland”
(British Antarctic Survey))

Ice crack to put UK Antarctic base in shut-down
Jonathan Amos, BBC News (January 16, 2017)

The British Antarctic Survey is to pull all staff out of its space-age Halley base in March for safety reasons.

“The highly unusual move is necessary because the Brunt Ice Shelf on which the research station sits has developed a big new crack.

“BAS officials say neither staff nor the base are in any immediate danger but believe it would be prudent to withdraw while the situation is assessed.

“The plan would be to go back once the Antarctic winter is over, in November….”

Halley Research Station got started with wooden hut built in 1956, part of a Royal Society expedition during the International Geophysical Year.

Snow eventually buried Halley I through IV, obliging researchers to move into newly-built quarters.

Halley V was designed to get lifted above each year’s snow accumulation, lasting until Halley VI was ready. Each of the current Halley Research Station modules stands on skis, so the station can be relocated as needed.6

The “Halloween Crack”

(From BAS, via BBC, used w/o permission.)
(“Aurora: Halley base has become a centre for the study of space weather”
(BBC News))

“…BAS is in the process of conducting such a move right now. The relocation is all but complete, with the last pod currently in the final stage of being shifted 23km to the new site.

“The move was necessitated by a chasm that had opened up in the shelf and which threatened to cut off Halley. But this huge fissure to the west of the station is not the cause of the temporary closure.

“Rather, it is another break in the ice some 17km to the north and east of the new base position. It has been dubbed the ‘Halloween Crack’ because it was discovered on 31 October….”
(Jonathan Amos, BBC News)

The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) folks don’t think part of the Brunt Ice Shelf is going to break off during the Antarctic winter.

But they can’t be sure, and don’t want folks on the ice if it does. A 19-hour power outage during the 2014 winter may have encouraged this common-sense move:

Power-down at British Antarctic Survey Halley Research Station – Statement
BAS Press Office (August 6, 2014)

“British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is dealing with a serious operational incident at its Halley Research Station. On Wednesday 30 July 2014 a major technical issue resulted in the station losing its electrical and heating supply for 19 hours. All 13 station staff are safe and in good health….”

With nobody around to keep an eye on equipment, BAS will be deciding whether to leave some of the experiments running and hope for the best, or shut the whole thing down until winter’s end.

It’s not an easy decision, since Halley VI collects data on Earth’s atmosphere, and beyond.7

3. A New Book by Prince Charles

(From Penguin, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The cover of the book was based on an image of flooding in Uckfield, East Sussex”
(BBC News))

Prince Charles co-authors Ladybird climate change book
(January 15, 2017)

Prince Charles has co-authored a Ladybird book on the challenges and possible solutions to climate change.

“It is part of a series for adults written in the style of the well-known children’s books that aims to clearly explain complicated subjects.

“The 52-page guide has been co-authored by former Friends of the Earth director Tony Juniper and climate scientist Emily Shuckburgh.

“Mr Juniper said he hoped the book would ‘stand the test of time’….”

Fear not! Uckfield in East Sussex is not sinking beneath the waves. Not yet, anyway.

The Prince Charles climate change book might become a collectors item, like first edition copies of “Bunnikin’s Picnic Party.”

I suppose anything “royal” has added value in some circles.

I was glad to see that marketing for this book isn’t entirely hysterical, although there’s the usual fear appeal.

“…You’ll learn about the causes and consequences of climate disruption; heatwaves, floods and other extreme weather; disappearing wildlife; acid oceans; the benefits of limiting warming; sustainable farming, new clean technologies and the circular economy….”
(“Climate Change (A Ladybird Expert Book) (The Ladybird Expert Series),”

The hardcover book, available January 26, 2017, is already a #1 ‘meteorology’ bestseller on

“Heatwaves, Floods … Disappearing Wildlife; Acid oceans”

It could be worse.

The cover illustration could show Cobb Bakers and Uckfield Pharmacy dissolving in an acid ocean as Godzilla and Hedorah battle on the skyline.

I found listings for several pharmacies in Uckfield, incidentally, but no “Uckfield Pharmacy.” I’m pretty sure both businesses are fictional.

I’m also sure that developing cleaner industrial technologies is a good idea, and that recycling makes sense.

That said, I’m not jumping on the “acid oceans” bandwagon. I’ve seen enough fizzled doomsday predictions, religious and otherwise, to be a bit cautious:

“…in ten years all important animal life in the sea will be extinct. Large areas of coastline will have to be evacuated because of the stench of dead fish….”
(Paul Ehrlich, on first Earth Day, (1970))

“…By the year 2000 the United Kingdom will be simply a small group of impoverished islands, inhabited by some 70 million hungry people….”
(Paul Ehrlich, Speech at British Institute For Biology (September 1971))

I’ve talked about Ehrlich, Yeats, and preacher-prognosticators, before. (August 12, 2016; August 7, 2016)

On the other hand, despite ‘is not/is so’ claims flying like fewmets in a lively primate house debate, climate change is real.

Stewardship: Part of Our Job

(From the European Space Agency, used w/o permission.)
(Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in Earth’s troposphere, between January 2003 and June 2004.)

As I keep saying, our “dominion” over this world isn’t ownership. We’re more like stewards, responsible for God’s property. (August 12, 2016)

Seeing this universe as beautiful, good, and our responsibility, isn’t an option. It’s a requirement.

Keeping this world in good working order is part of our job. (Genesis 1:2629, 2:15; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339, 952, 24022405, 2456)

The question isn’t whether or not we can change Earth’s climate. There’s good reason to believe we’ve been doing it, at least regionally, ever since folks started planting crops.

But our croplands and factories aren’t the only forces at work.

Mount Tambora’s eruption probably helped set off the Year Without a Summer.

Krakatoa’s 1883 eruption had a similar effect.

That’s Mount Redoubt in the photo, during its 1989–1990 eruption. It didn’t cause a volcanic winter, but did clog all four engines of a KLM airliner someone flew through its ash cloud.

Earth’s climate was changing long before humanity arrived. It’s changed a lot over the last few billion years.

Learning Wisdom, not Fear

We’re pretty hot stuff:

4 What are humans that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them little less than a god, crowned them with glory and honor.”
(Psalms 8:46)

But “little less than a god” isn’t “God.”

I’ve talked about hubris, humility, and getting a grip, before. (November 18, 2016; July 31, 2016)

The responsibility that comes with our power is scary. Scary or not, though, we’ve got a job to do: taking care of the world’s resources for our reasoned use, and for future generations. (Catechism, 339, 2402, 2415)

If we’re going to do that job, we must keep studying the universe: and developing new tools using that knowledge. (Catechism, 22932295)

I am pretty sure that we know enough today to deliberately change Earth’s climate. I am also quite sure that we do not know enough to do so safely. Not yet.

In the short run, we should keep doing what we’re doing: reducing industrial pollution, and learning more about long-term climate changes. In the long run — that’s still another topic.

Meanwhile, being scared silly won’t help. That makes about as much sense as a shop foreman being scared of power tools.

More about Earth and being human:

1 Global cooling and all that:

2 Living in an ice age:

3 It’s starting to look like we had at least two “Snowball Earth” events: one about 650,000,000 years back, and another upwards of two billion years ago. Most ice ages weren’t that severe:

4 Antarctica, mostly:

5 Glaciers and ice shelves:

6 Britain’s Antarctic research:

7 More about Britain’s Antarctic research:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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