03.21.17

Time to Wake Up: Melting Glaciers and the Warming Arctic

Mr. President, back in 2015, on a trip to Ohio, I met Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie Thompson.  They’ve been married 45 years—which is about as long as they’ve been research partners.  Ellen and Lonnie are glaciologists who run the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center at the Ohio State University.  They have spent their lives studying the world’s glaciers, leading expeditions all over the planet, to incredible places—the North Pole, the South Pole, the Greenland icecap, the high mountains of Peru and faraway China.

They gave me this.  It’s a piece of plant matter.  It is from a plant that sprouted 6,620-some years ago, back at time when wooly mammoths still roamed the Earth, before we humans entered the Bronze Age.  Then it snowed on this plant.  Snow piled on snow, year after year, and the plant was buried under glacier.  There it stayed. 

But now, as global temperatures steadily rise, driven by climate change, glaciers the world over are melting.  The glacier that buried this plant 6 thousand years ago receded so fast that here it is.  Six thousand years in a glacier.  Now it’s here in my hand.  You can look, and you can still see the leaves.

It’s not just plants emerging in this great melting.  We’re seeing the emergence of remains of our own long-dead ancestors from glaciers.  This is becoming so common that a new field of study has been created, “glacial archaeologist.”

I’m here today for my 162nd “Time to Wake Up” speech to share with my colleagues the story of our warming Arctic and our world’s disappearing glaciers. 

The Thompsons, when they travel, drill down into the ice and take deep core samples out of the glacier.   Each sample contains hundreds of thousands of years of accumulated snow and ice.  For Ellen and Lonnie, that means hundreds of thousands of years of data.  They store these core samples from glaciers all around the globe in a big freezer room in their lab back in Columbus.

Other researchers from France and Italy are creating a separate repository of ice cores from glaciers around the world.  The scientists, who have dubbed the project “Protecting Ice Memory,” are planning to bury the cores in a snow bunker 33 feet under Antarctica’s surface, where they’ll hopefully keep for posterity.  Given the rate of climate change, these ice core samples may be the last record we have of all the information left in lost glaciers. 

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.  Here’s how the United States Geological Survey put it in 2010:

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.

One hundred and fifty glaciers a hundred years ago, twenty-five now.  I wonder what they will call Glacier Park once the glaciers are gone.

This is (or was) 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. 

Glacier loss isn’t just happening in the United States. It’s happening all over the world.

This is the work of Christian Åslund in National Geographic.  He has spent most of his life in the Arctic, documenting, in striking photos, the effects of climate change.  Åslund dug through the archives of the Norwegian Polar Institute to find pictures of the glaciers in Svalbard, Norway, from the 1920s.  He then set out to photograph the exact same spots 90 years later.

Many of the landscapes had completely changed from the archival photos.  Over the years, the Blomstrand Peninsula had become Blomstrand Island, and a whole new sound had melted away.

These photos were taken back in 2003.  Global glacier melt has gotten worse since then.

It’s the same story elsewhere in the Arctic.  The Greenland Ice Sheet is the world’s second-largest glacier land mass.  A study last year from the journal Science Advances found that we may have underestimated the current rate of mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet by about 20 billion tons per year.  And as Science Magazine recently highlighted, the accelerating surface melt of ice and snow of the Greenland Ice Sheet since 2011 has doubled Greenland's contribution to global sea level rise.

All told, the melting Greenland Ice Sheet holds the equivalent of more than 23 feet of sea level rise in its ice. 

Why are these glaciers changing and shrinking?  Because the Earth is warming.  Because over the last 150 years, the industrial activities of modern civilization, the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases that trap in our atmosphere.  Those gases trap heat in our atmosphere, warming the planet.  

That warming of the planet is accelerating more quickly at the poles.   The Norwegian Polar Institute found that the rate of warming in the Arctic is about twice as high as the global average.  When snow and ice melt, it exposes a darker surface underneath.  This darker surface then absorbs more solar energy than the snow and ice did, and that warms the region even faster.  So climate change has compounding effects in the high latitudes.

Temperatures in the Arctic were the highest in recorded history for the period between December 2016 and February 2017.  The World Meteorological Organization noted that “At least three times so far this winter, the Arctic has witnessed the polar equivalent of a heat wave.”  What this means in layman’s terms is that when the ice in the Arctic should have been freezing – in the deep mid winter -- it was actually melting.  And more warming and more melting means more sea level rise. 

Last year, researchers published in Nature an updated estimate of global sea level rise.  It’s not pretty.  This new study doubles the previous estimate, putting global sea level rise over six feet by the end of this century.

This led to the January NOAA report I discussed last week, which updated global sea level rise estimates and made region-specific assessments for the United States coastline.  The report raised the previous upper-range, or “extreme,” scenario for average global sea level in the year 2100 by 20 inches, for a total of 8.2 feet, with the local high scenario now projected by Rhode Island CRMC at between 9 and 12 feet of sea level rise.  Remember, when you go up nine feet, the shore goes back many hundreds of feet in many places. 

NOAA and its partners then tailored their findings to the U.S. coasts.  They found that under the higher scenarios, all regions in the United States, except Alaska, can expect sea level rise higher than the global mean.  The news was particularly harsh for the western Gulf of Mexico and the Northeast Atlantic coast—that’s Virginia through Maine, including my home of Rhode Island. 

Coastal managers, like Rhode Island’s Coastal Resources Management Council or CRMC, are taking these new estimates seriously and incorporating the “high” scenario into their planning. 

And it all starts with warming seas, and melting glaciers. 

When National Geographic caught up with Åslund a few weeks ago, he said something striking, “What's happening in the Arctic is spreading around the whole globe.”  Those pictures he had taken 14 years ago were just the beginning.  Åslund described a meeting with Kiribati’s president: “He knows climate change is just a fact...they're buying up land in Fiji so they can evacuate in the future.” Kiribati, an island nation, has to face the real consequences of climate change.  It’s preparing to become a modern-day Atlantis, lost forever to the waves.

I’ll end with one final quote from Mr. Åslund.  When asked about the devastating effects of climate change he had seen first-hand, he responded, “It is the biggest challenge we face and we must act now before it’s too late.”

Mr. President, do one man’s photographs have any chance against the massive deception orchestrated by the fossil fuel industry? I hope that this body will wake up in time to meet that challenge before it’s too late.

I yield the floor.