If the collapse of Larsen B was a wake-up call, surely the taxicab is now tooting outside the door: researchers this week report that the entire Antarctic continent is warming, in spite of the protective ventilation afforded by the ozone hole. The western peninsula, the fragile Wilkins ice shelf have long been cause for concern – ice melting from here will raise global sea levels significantly. But now it seems that the higher altitude, cooler eastern Antarctic has also been warming, and the interior. And as the effects of the CFC ban (enacted in much of the world) come to play, the ozone hole is expected to further shrink.
It is the ocean temperatures that drive much of the glacial carve-up, not air temperature (although they are not divorced) but it is not a neat direct temperature relationship – as melting begins, water seeps deeper into formerly insulated slabs of ice, lubricating vast sections of glacier that slip away faster and faster. They won’t return. Once that water is lost to the atmosphere, reducing our CO2 emissions by EU or any other targets won’t turn the clock back for these glaciers.
This week, the World Glacier Monitoring Service reported that glacier melting in 2007 (the last year for which data exists) was the third worst on record, even though rates were substantially down on 2006 rates.
Often described as the climate doomsday merchant, although I find him a wonderfully cheerful character, James Lovelock told me that he thinks rising sea-levels from glacier melt, combined with other warming related disasters, such as crop collapse, will reduce the world’s population by nine-tenths. His preferred solution: char burial – burning agricultural waste using very little oxygen to produce charcoal (near pure carbon) which can then be sequestered by farmers ploughing it into the ground.
I saw a neat example of this in Agra, outside the magnificent white marble Taj Mahal. Fearing its devastation (and presumably the loss of tourist-associated revenue) the Indian government issued a ban on dirty industry in a several kiometres-wide octagonal zone around the monument. Hardest hit were the glass bangle manufacturers, for centuries associated with the district, who had mere months to pack up their filthy kilns and leave. Some, though, accepted the help of scientists at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), who, with govt loans, helped them to install clean burning kilns. These work by combusting agricultural waste, mostly cow dung, in near absence of oxygen to produce heat for the kilns, biogas and charcoal for the farmers to bury as a fertilizer. Everyone’s a winner. It took time and money and a lot of cultural overturn to change practice and mindset in some of the poorest and most uneducated people, as the researchers at TERI told me when I visited their zen-like building in Delhi. But, once one person was onboard, a Mr Kahn, who made a quick and respectable profit using the cheaper fuel, others quickly followed, they say.
Take a look at Nick’s lovely Taj Mahal pics to see the most obvious impact of cleaning up industry.