03.04.14

Glacial Snowpack and Climate Change

As delivered on the Senate floor

Thank you, Mr. President. I’m here now for the sixtieth time to ask my colleagues to wake up to the threats of climate change.  To see the damage that is being caused by our shifting climate, we need look no further than the Winter Olympics.

The most recent Winter Olympics concluded last month. Over 200 countries broadcast the event to an estimated 3.8 billion people worldwide.  In Rhode Island, we rooted for our very own Marissa Castelli, who brought home a bronze medal in pairs figure skating. 

But what does the future hold for the Winter Olympics?  As global temperatures rise and weather patterns shift, the world’s glaciers are receding and snowpack in traditionally snowy regions is declining. 

A report from the University of Waterloo found that February daytime high temperatures during the Winter Games have been steadily increasing from the 1920s and 50s to the twenty-first century.  This forced the International Olympic Committee to take drastic measures to ensure adequate conditions – ramping up the use of snow making machines and physically transferring large amounts of snow to the site of the games. 

This is just the beginning of things to come.  If our emissions are left unchecked, like the Republicans and the polluters prefer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports we will likely see warming between 4.7 and 8.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.

[Chart Hosting Olympic Cities]

The Waterloo report found only ten of the nineteen cities to previously host the Winter Olympics would be cold enough to host the games by the 2080s.  There could be no Sochi Olympics.  No Vancouver, or Squaw Valley, or Sarajevo Olympics.  And that’s if we’re able to stabilize and ultimately reduce our global carbon emissions before the year 2100.  If carbon pollution continues on the current pace, only six of these cities could host the games.  Forget about Torino and Nagano, Lake Placid and Lillehammer.

Over 100 Olympic athletes from ten different countries signed a letter asking world leaders to take action to curb climate change.  They said, and I’ll quote here, “As winter Olympic athletes, our lives revolve around the winter and if climate change continues at this pace, the economies of the small towns where we live and train will be ruined, our sports will be forever changed and the winter Olympics as we know it will be a thing of the past.”

Much as we all love the Winter Olympics, we could do without them.  We can’t very well do without fresh water.  Glaciers represent the largest reserves of freshwater on Earth.  Their freshwater feeds our rivers and streams, waters our farms and ranches, and provides some of our drinking water.

Glacier loss is happening all over the world, including right here in the United States.  And just like atmospheric warming, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise, this evidence of climate change is not a theoretical projection.  It is not a complex scientific model.  It is simple observation and measurement.    

[Chart Grinnell in Glacier National Park]

This is Grinnell Glacier in Montana’s Glacier National Park.  On top we see the glacier in 1940; on the bottom is the same spot in 2004.  Grinnell Glacier has lost 90 percent of its ice in the last century.  The glacier has almost disappeared, or as the United States Geological Survey puts it, “effects of global climate change are strikingly clear.”  The United States Geological Survey further explains, and I’ll quote here:

Glacier recession is underway, and many glaciers have already disappeared.  The retreat of these small alpine glaciers reflects changes in recent climate as glaciers respond to altered temperature and precipitation.  It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established.  In 2010, we consider there to be only twenty-five glaciers larger than twenty-five acres remaining in Glacier National Park.

[Chart Lillian Glacier Washington’s Olympic National Park]

One hundred and fifty glaciers a hundred years ago, twenty-five now.  Here we see a similar change at Lillian Glacier in Washington’s Olympic National Park.  On the top we see a large, healthy glacier in 1905, and this almost unrecognizable view of the same landscape in 2010. 

And, of course, this is not just happening in the United States.  Countries across the world are seeing rapid glacier loss. 

A 2013 article published in Nature found clear evidence that the Tibetan glaciers—the world’s third largest ice reservoir behind Antarctica and Greenland—are shrinking, even at altitudes above 20,000 feet.  

South America’s Andean glaciers are retreating at an increasing rate.  Climatologists from Ohio State University and NASA loaned my office a piece of a plant that has been preserved under the Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru for at least 5,200 years—little bitty piece of plant—but, under the pressure of the ice and the cold, it had been preserved for 52 centuries.  Today, due to glacial retreat it was exposed, I now have that piece of plant in my office. 

Glaciers are some of the largest reservoirs of freshwater on Earth.  According to the United States Geological Survey, glaciers store 69 percent of the world’s freshwater.  Annual spring glacial melt provides a dependable source of water for streams, plants, spawning fish, farming, and now often hydroelectricity.  In Central Asia hundreds of millions of people rely on the Tibetan glaciers to supply drinking water.  The same goes for the people of Peru and Bolivia in the Andes.

This is a crisis we must take seriously.  Unfortunately, Congress remains barricaded behind a blockade of polluter influence.  Just last week, a Republican witness at an Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on adapting to climate change argued that we’d be better off if the glaciers just went away, if they just melted away.  After all, he told the Committee, “we evolved at the equator in a climate where freezing weather did not exist. . . . It could be said that frost and ice are the enemies of life.”  He continued: 

Obviously if the glaciers stop melting, there will be no more meltwater from them.  So my questions . . . are, Are you saying you want the glaciers to stop melting?  Then where would the irrigation water come from? . . . I say let the glaciers melt.

That’s the witness the Republicans put up.  Let the glaciers melt?  I guess he missed the difference between seasonal melting, whose annual rhythms fill our streams and rivers for drinking water and fishing and farming, and glaciers outright melting away.

Now, Mr. President, there’s another little trick the deniers like to play when it’s winter time.  Every time there’s a cold snap or a little snow falls here in Washington, or back in their home state, they say, “How can there be global warming when it’s cold out?”  And yes, we have had a cold winter. 

But what scientists and other level-headed observers understand, is that changes occurring in the climate are happening over longer periods than just one winter, and across broader regions than just one state or even the United States.  Moreover, short term temperature anomalies—like a cold snap–might be worse because of climate change, from changes in the jet stream for instance.     

[Chart: Global Temperature Anomalies]

This chart shows how worldwide winter temperatures every year since 1880 compare with the twentieth century average.  You think there’s a trend visible there?  Over a hundred years.  Yes, winter is still cold.  But it’s not as cold as it used to be. 

And this change is ravaging winter sports and tourism across the United States.  The Natural Resources Defense Council found that between 1999 and 2010, a lack of snowfall cost our ski industry a billion dollars and up to 27,000 jobs.  Before the end of the century, the number of economically viable ski locations in New Hampshire and Maine will be cut in half; skiing in New York will be cut by three-quarters; and the report says there will be no ski area in Connecticut or Massachusetts. 

Well, if you know your geography you know that if that’s true of Connecticut and Massachusetts, there goes Rhode Island’s Yawgoo Valley Ski slope.

The Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, which I started with Representative Henry Waxman, asked the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Football League, and the United States Olympic Committee, to tell us what climate change means for their sports. 

National Hockey League,  Deputy Commissioner William Daly wrote:

Hockey’s relationship with the environment is unique.  Our sport was born on frozen ponds, where—to this day—players of all ages and skill levels learn to skate.  For this magnificent tradition to continue, it is imperative that we recognize the importance of maintaining the environment.

The Park City Foundation in Utah predicts an annual local temperature increase of 6.8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2075, which could cause a complete loss of snowpack in the lower Park City resort area of the Rocky Mountains.  The Foundation estimates that this will result in thousands of lost jobs, tens of millions in lost earnings, and hundreds of millions in lost economic growth. 

Mr. President, while we in Congress equivocate and stall, the evidence of climate change relentlessly mounts.  The damage is being done in our atmosphere and our oceans.  And the longer it takes us to wake up, the harder and more expensive it will be to fix it. 

The sickening part is that everyone else is waking up.  Sixty-five percent of voters support the President “taking significant steps to address climate change now.”  Another poll found that 82 percent of Americans believe we should start preparing now for rising sea levels and severe storms from climate change.

Even in the party that won’t speak the words “climate change” any longer, not since Citizens United cleared the way for big spending by polluters into Republican primaries.  Even in the Republican party, among young Republican voters, 35 and under, the majority of them feel that climate denial is either ignorant, out of touch, or crazy.  If that’s what young Republicans feel, that’s a very poor foundation for the Republican party to maintain this denier policy.  Mr. President, the campaign of money and denial that imprisons Congress is as poisonous to our American democracy as carbon pollution is to our atmosphere, oceans, and, yes, glaciers.  It is time to fight back. 

It is time to wake up.

I yield the floor.