Year 4, Month 5, Day 27: River Deep, Mountain High

The LA Times, on Mount Everest. So to speak.

A warming climate is melting the glaciers of Mount Everest, shrinking the frozen cloak of Earth’s highest peak by 13% in the last 50 years, researchers have found.

Rocks and natural debris previously covered by snow are appearing now as the snow line has retreated 590 feet, according to Sudeep Thakuri, a University of Milan scientist who led the research.

The pessimistic view of Earth’s tallest peak was presented during a meeting Tuesday of the American Geophysical Union in Cancun, Mexico.

Researchers said they believe the observed changes could be due to human-generated greenhouse gases altering global climate, although their research has not established a firm connection.

The team reconstructed the glacial history of the area using satellite imagery and topographic maps of Everest and the surrounding 713-square-mile Sagarmatha National Park. Their statistical analysis shows that the majority of the glaciers in the national park are retreating at an increasing rate, Thakuri said.

Why? Because it’s not there. May 15:

Once we set aside the iconic importance of a shrinking Mount Everest, the really ominous facts about disappearing ice caps in the Himalayas are the numbers of people whose lives depend on them. Whether it’s for irrigation, hydroelectric generation, or clean drinking water, this steady flow from the world’s tallest mountains is crucial for the existence of almost a seventh of the world’s population. If we subtract that water from the picture, what’s left are hundreds of millions of climate refugees, desperate, landless, hungry, thirsty.

But these people may be more fortunate than many in the developed world who rely on elaborate infrastructure for their food and water. Why? Because they can simply look up and see the daily changes on these peaks, they’re not tempted by magical thinking and ideologically-motivated denialism, like those whose air-conditioned lives have allowed them to ignore the climate crisis until it’s already upon them.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 5: The Mighty Quinn, Redux.

This is horrifying, in an awful kind of way. The New York Times is one of many reporting on NASA’s recent observations of Greenland, which appears to be melting very fast. Very fast:

In a scant four days this month, the surface of Greenland’s ice sheet melted to an extent not witnessed in 30 years of satellite observations, NASA reported on Tuesday.

The extent of Greenland’s ice sheet surface, in white, on July 8, left, and July 12, right, based on measurements from three satellites, which pass over at different times and whose data are combined and analyzed. The deepest pink areas reflect maximal certainty that the ice has melted.

On average, about half of the surface of the ice sheet melts during the summer. But from July 8 to July 12, the ice melt expanded from 40 percent of the ice sheet to 97 percent, according to scientists who analyzed the data from satellites deployed by NASA and India’s space research institute.

“I started looking at the satellite imagery and saw something that was really unprecedented” since the advent of satellite imaging of the earth’s frozen surface, or cryosphere, said Thomas L. Mote, a climate scientist at the University of Georgia who for 20 years has been studying ice changes on Greenland detected by satellite.

While scientists described it as an “extreme event” not previously recorded from space, they hastened to add that it was normal in a broader historical context.

But Al Gore is fat. Sent July 25:

When it comes to the news on climate change, “rare” seems to be the new “often.” How often in the recent past have we heard reports of “once-in-a-century” storms suddenly happening every year? Of nearly snowless winters several times in a row — in places normally measuring the stuff in yards?

NASA’s report of unprecedented melting on Greenland’s ice sheet is just the latest and most terrifying example of this phenomenon. While the researchers studying the ice discuss it in careful scientific language, there’s no doubt they are shocked and disturbed by such extreme melting.

How much more evidence do we need to connect the accelerating greenhouse effect to these stunning disruptions of the environmental status quo? Our civilization was made possible by a mild and predictable climate — one rapidly vanishing in the rear-view mirrors of our industrial-size SUVs. Now that “bizarre” is the new “normal”, whither humanity?

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 8, Day 2: “…the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

The Kansas City Star runs a McClatchy intern’s story on climate change’s effects on a place nobody will ever visit:

AYALOMA, Ecuador — Frosts aren’t on time for the 960 people living in this tiny, remote village, hidden on a chilly, windswept mountain ridge in South America.

A minor problem? Maybe for some. But in the Andean community, 8,800 feet above sea level, frosts – and their impact on crop cycles – are kind of a big deal.

In this agricultural community, crops are planted during the full moon, a tradition meant to help ensure a full harvest. But these days, the harvests aren’t as full.

Village residents say it’s the mark of climate change descending upon the Ayaloman people.

“In Ecuador, we’ve really experienced a sudden change in our climate,” said Ana Loja, a professor at the University of Cuenca, in the Andes of southern Ecuador. “We cannot say, ‘Maybe this is not happening,’ but I think everyone is aware it is a real problem.”

It’s always the Other what feels the blow. Sent July 22:

A strong human-interest element is essential to good reporting, and Annika McGinnis’ report on climate change’s impact on a tiny village in Central America is a wonderful example. The story of how these tough mountain people are coping with a radically changing world makes for compelling reading.

But that’s not all there is to news. Ms. McGinnis’ article needs to make the connection to the lives of readers in the United States. For too long, climate change has been the problem of an unspecified “other”, only affecting people and nations far from our own. As Midwest heatwaves and Colorado wildfires make clear, the impact of the burgeoning greenhouse effect is not the exclusive province of the Third World; the climatic consequences of a century-long carbon binge are no respecters of national boundaries. The industrialized West will soon have more in common with Ayaloma’s residents than we can presently imagine.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 4, Day 12: Imagine….

The Hindustan Times reports on a conference of mountain nations hosted by the Nepali government. Good for them:

Threat posed by global warming and the need to have a collective voice in climate change negotiations have brought mountain countries from across the world to one platform.

Representatives from government and organization from over two dozen countries having peaks with heights of 4,000
metres or more have gathered here to deliberate on the way ahead.

Initiated by Nepal government, the two-day conference will discuss effects of climate change on 25% of land Earth’s surface covered by mountains and nearly 13% world population residing there.

The objective is to promote concerns of mountain countries within UNFCCC process, draw global attention to the threat, seek solutions and adopt a Kathmandu Call for Action.

Terming climate change as the greatest threat facing humankind, Nepal President Ram Baran Yadav said that mountain nations are experiencing disproportionate effects of it.

I’m just a peacenik. Sent April 5:

Only a few years ago, climate change was generally understood as something that would only affect our descendants. Now, as the likely consequences of a runaway greenhouse effect become evident in our daily lives, it’s apparent that we — all humanity — are on the front lines of a battle against a remorseless and unfeeling enemy. The conference of mountain nations initiated by the Nepalese government is one of many international collaborations that may very well be our species’ best chance of survival.

As even the nations most invested in climate-change denial will eventually discover, this enemy attacks mountains and islands alike, ravaging forests and deserts with impersonal efficiency. We are under assault by forces we have ourselves created through profligate consumption of fossil fuels, and to win this battle, we must enter a new era of international cooperation; the fight against climate change leaves no more room for war.

Warren Senders

Year 3, Month 3, Day 8: First There Is A Mountain, Then There Is No Mountain, Then There Is

The Oshkosh Northwestern (WI) runs an AP story on the likelihood of glacial-melt floods in the Himalayas:

TATOPANI, Nepal (WTW) — Before Apa became a legendary Sherpa mountaineer, he was a humble Himalayan potato farmer who worked his fields in the Everest foothills until, without warning, raging floodwaters swallowed his farm.

The flash flood — unleashed when a mountain lake fed by melting glacier waters burst its banks — destroyed homes, bridges and a hydroelectric plant. Apa scrambled up a hill, but at least five neighbors were swept away.

Twenty-six years later, after scaling the world’s highest mountain a record 21 times, Apa is on a quest to draw attention to the danger of more devastating floods as glacial melt caused by climate change fills mountain lakes to the bursting point.

The 51-year-old Apa, who like most Sherpas uses only one name, is trekking the length of Nepal to warn villagers to prepare themselves for change. A third of the way along his 120-day journey, he has already seen many lakes that look ready to spill.

“If it happens again, many villages would be washed away and lives lost,” he said during a break in his trek in Tatopani, a resort village near the Tibet border.

Chances are, it will happen again.

There are now thousands of such lakes transforming Himalayan foothills and waterways into extreme danger zones for some of the millions of people in seven countries abutting the massive mountain range.

I smell an analogy. Sent March 3:

As Himalayan glacial ice melts, Nepal’s mountain lakes are filling up faster than they can drain, making catastrophic flooding a certainty, and forcing the villagers living below to confront the dangerous reality of climate change every day. The choice they face is a devastating one: stay — and continue an imperiled existence, or go — and abandon their ancestral lands for an uprooted and uncertain future? It only adds to the irony that they have contributed absolutely nothing to the planetary accumulation of greenhouse gases that now threatens their lives and livelihoods.

But the Sherpas, unlike most citizens of the industrialized world, are acutely aware of their precarious position. Ultimately, of course, their plight is humanity’s dilemma in microcosm; all of us are confronting a danger far graver than any our species has faced in all recorded history. Whether it’s floods, storms, fires or droughts, the consequences of the burgeoning greenhouse effect are a Damoclean sword hanging over all our heads.

Warren Senders

Month 11, Day 15: Do You Believe In Magic?

The New York Times profiles the scientists who are measuring water temperatures and ice melt in the glaciers.


While the United States is among the countries at greatest risk, neither it nor any other wealthy country has made tracking and understanding the changes in the ice a strategic national priority.

The consequence is that researchers lack elementary information. They have been unable even to measure the water temperature near some of the most important ice on the planet, much less to figure out if that water is warming over time. Vital satellites have not been replaced in a timely way, so that American scientists are losing some of their capability to watch the ice from space.

The missing information makes it impossible for scientists to be sure how serious the situation is.

“As a scientist, you have to stick to what you know and what the evidence suggests,” said Gordon Hamilton, one of the researchers in the helicopter. “But the things I’ve seen in Greenland in the last five years are alarming. We see these ice sheets changing literally overnight.”

As a scientifically aware layperson, I wish to point out that when these people use words like “alarming” it means something very different from the day-to-day interpretation we put on the word. “Alarming” is what an exobiologist would say if Chthulu appeared over a city in all His blood-curdling glory.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, kids. It’s been fun.

Perhaps the greatest failing of our national discussion is our systemic reliance on magical thinking; American politicians honestly seem to believe that if we don’t acknowledge something, it doesn’t exist. Thus the inevitable default choice: do nothing and hope for the best. Later, we hear, “Nobody anticipated…” Nobody, we’re told, anticipated the breach of New Orleans’ levees; the hijacked airplanes and collapsing towers; the missing Iraqi WMDs. Those who did were ignored, because believing in magic is easier than dealing with facts. Now we learn that our capacity to measure ice depletion in the Poles has been degraded by funding cuts, making it impossible for anyone to anticipate the effects of glacial melt until it’s too late to respond effectively. In the coming years, the catastrophes of climate change may finally teach us that facts are ignored at our peril. Alas for our species, Earth is unmoved by our magic.

Warren Senders

Year 1, Month 1, Day 15: Chastising the Washington Post

Daughter announced this morning that she wanted to stay home, and “make up a school at home.” I agreed, with the caveat that she would have to spend a bunch of time alone, as I had work to do and some students later in the morning. In a minute or so I’m going to make some calls for the Coakley campaign. Today’s letter is a remix of several earlier items; I’m now at the point where I have enough material to dissect and reassemble my output in multiple combinations. It’s less work, or it would be if the prose wasn’t on such a harrowing topic.

Each day brings new news about the magnitude of the looming climate crisis; most recently we learn that the Pine Island Glacier, largest of the glaciers making up the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet, has passed a “tipping point” and is now inexorably melting. Simultaneously levels of atmospheric methane over the Siberian Shelf in the Arctic Ocean now range between a hundred and a thousand times normal, indicating that gigatonnes of this powerful greenhouse gas which have been frozen under the tundra for tens of thousands of years are now starting to enter the atmosphere. The most significant thing about the predictions of climatologists is that they are without exception too conservative; tipping points projected for the end of this century now loom at the end of this decade.

The best-case scenarios for runaway global warming lead to terrifying dystopias, with millions of displaced climate refugees, worldwide food and water shortages, resource wars and devastatingly unpredictable weather patterns. The worst-case scenarios could lead to global temperatures soaring to levels inhospitable to any life at all. Venus, in short. And the scientific evidence (again, based on conservative projections) suggests that the probability of bad-to-worst-case outcomes is statistically significant. This country’s rush to war in 2002 was based on evidence far less robust than that for human causes of global climate change: if the evidence of Iraqi WMD’s was as strong as that for anthropogenic global warming, our troops would have found stacks of nuclear weapons freely sold in the bazaars of Baghdad.

And where is the Washington Post in all this? Firmly ignoring science and continuing to publish the glib (albeit erudite) misinformation propagated by George Will. The Post should correct this shortsighted policy immediately; there has never been a time in human history when enabling ignorance could have such devastating consequences.

Warren Senders