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Climate Change, Weather Disasters: Read All About It: Rising Sea Levels

by Bruce E. Johansen

Rising Sea Levels

As the Earth warms glaciers melt, contributing to sea-level rise and posing a serious threat to many millions of peoples’ drinking and agricultural water supplies. Rivers fed by glaciers in the world’s largest and highest mountain ranges sustain almost half the people on Earth, spanning Iran, Pakistan, India, Mongolia, Tibet, China, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. The same situation is taking place along the spine of the Andes and the Missouri River in the US. Warming also plays a role in darkening ice through accumulation of dark soot, which accelerates melting through changes in albedo (whiteness). Baiqing Xu et al. survey this occurrence in “Black Soot and the Survival of Tibetan Glaciers.” A number of sources also review darkening and melting ice in Greenland, where this occurrence is particularly problematic, including the NASA Earth Observatory reports “Greenland’s Ice Is Growing Darker” and “Greenland Melt Ponds” and the 2014 Nature article “Soot Drives Greenland Melting.” Turning to the US, the essays “Multi-century Evaluation of Sierra Nevada Snowpack and California Snowpack Lowest in Past 500 years” by Soumaya Belmecheri et al. and “Native Ecosystems Blitzed by Drought” by Alexandra Witze continue in this field of study.

Detailed analyses of glacial retreat, especially in the Arctic and Antarctic, have become a major staple of climate-change literature. The swift advance of global warming has even changed the language by which the frozen world is known. For example, permafrost is still known by that name, even though it is thawing, causing trees to lean at crazy angles in what is now called “the drunken forest.” Even Greenland has had a few small wildfires along its west coast, where glacial ice has melted. At lower latitudes, wildfires have become nearly an annual event over large parts of the Earth, even parts of the once-waterlogged Amazon Valley. One piece does not tell the whole story, but the sheer volume of reports indicates just how endangered the ice caps are becoming at both ends of the Earth. 

Useful resources for better comprehending ice loss in the Arctic region include the NASA Earth Observatory reports “Why Monitoring Emissions from Permafrost Matters” and “Widespread Warmth Envelops Greenland”; “Aerial Photographs Reveal Late–20th-Century Dynamic Ice Loss in Northwestern Greenland,” by Kurt H. Kjær et al.; Jim Carlton’s “A Winter without Walrus”; the New York Times report, “Alaska: Walrus Again Crowd onto Shore”; and Gretel Ehrlich’s “Rotten Ice: Traveling by Dogsled in the Melting Arctic” for Harper’s. For information on Antarctica, readers should turn to “Central West Antarctic among the Most Rapidly Warming Regions on Earth” by David Bromwich et al., Robert M. DeConto and David Pollard’s “Contribution of Antarctica to Past and Future Sea-Level Rise,” and “Dynamic Thinning of Glaciers on the Southern Antarctic Peninsula” by B. Wouters et al.

Overall, sea-level rise prompted by melting ice and warming oceans has become an existential issue that will only worsen in the future. As the NASA Earth Observatory reports “Annual Peak of Arctic Sea Ice Hit a Record Low” and “Antarctic Ice Loss Speeds Up, Nearly Matches Greenland Loss” note, ice is receding at a record pace. Tim Appenzeller’s “The Big Thaw,” David Archer’s The Long Thaw, and Josefino C. Comiso’s “Large Decadal Decline of the Arctic Multiyear Ice Cover” are also substantial works on rising sea levels.

A warming atmosphere encourages extremes in precipitation as well as temperature, which Richard P. Allan describes in “Climate Change: Human Influence on Rainfall.” Individual storms (e.g., hurricanes, tornadoes, other cyclonic storms, thunderstorms, and even snowstorms) become heavier and sometimes more stagnant. To better understand this, readers should see Morris A. Bender et al., “Modeled Impact of Anthropogenic Warming on the Frequency of Intense Atlantic Hurricanes” (mentioned earlier); H. Brooks’s “Severe Thunderstorms and Climate Change”; Kerry Emanuel’s “Downscaling CMIP5 Climate Models Shows Increased Tropical Cyclone Activity over the 21st Century”; Erich M. Fischer and Reto Knutti’s “Anthropogenic Contribution to Global Occurrence of Heavy-Precipitation and High-Temperature Extremes”; and Conrad Wasko and Ashish Sharma’s “Steeper Temporal Distribution of Rain Intensity at Higher Temperatures within Australian Storms.” Droughts may also become more extreme under these conditions, and tornadoes can occur in unusual places, such as Japan and New Zealand, documented in the 2012 The World article “Deadly Tornado Hits New Zealand.” 

With so much of the population now located on or near coastlines, rising seas and, in many cases, subsiding land at the waters’ edges also provoke extreme anxiety. Coral Davenport underscores this threat in her New York Times articles “The Marshall Islands Are Disappearing” and “Resettling the First American ‘Climate Refugees,’” the latter cowritten with Campbell Robertson. Richard B. Alley et al. also dig into the threat of rising sea levels in “Ice-Sheet and Sea-Level Changes.”

Rising carbon dioxide levels also damage life in the oceans from the smallest plankton to the largest whales, as Ricarda Winkelmann et al. note in “Combustion of Available Fossil Fuel Resources Sufficient to Eliminate the Antarctic Ice Sheet” for Science Advances. In fact, the loss of amphibian and other small species has become a major indicator of climate change’s effects on animal and plant life. Rising temperatures may degrade or eliminate amphibian species by means of diseases that flourish in warming habitats. Other animals are similarly imperiled, as Michael J. Benton explores in his book When Life Nearly Died. Other texts that examine the effects of climate change on small species’ survival include Ross A. Alford’s “Bleak Future for Amphibians” and Cally Carswell’s “Bumblebees Aren’t Keeping Up with a Warming Planet.”

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams examine the expansiveness of destruction wrought by climate change on marine life in the aforementioned Ocean Worlds, while Joe Cochrane addresses its effects on agriculture and society in Southeast Asia in his New York Times articles “Southeast Asia, Choking on Haze, Struggles for a Solution” and “Rain in Indonesia Dampens Fires That Spread Toxic Haze.”