Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Fatalistic Denial

One of my favorite memories of my near-decade in Alaska are excursions across Prince William Sound which always included a stop near the face of the spectacular, tidewater Columbia Glacier.

There are easier ways to see glaciers.  There are more than two dozen named glaciers in or in closer proximity to the Municipality of Anchorage where I was in charge of community destination marketing in the 1980s.

One is tucked into the very southwest corner of Anchorage where during my time there, we were involved in facilitating a far more accessible glacier visitor center and excursion.  In fact, the idea surfaced when our organization conducted the community’s first inventory of potential visitor features.

There are nearly 800 named glaciers in “The Great Land.” An expert once estimated there were 10,000 in Alaska in all.  I expect many have vanished forever.  Even Columbia Glacier has retreated more than 12 miles in the span from a year or two before I left Alaska until now, two miles in just the last six years.

Icebergs calving off Columbia had multiplied by four times between when I first arrived in 1978 and my first visit to the glacier in the very early 1980s. 

By 1989, my first year in Durham, accelerated iceberg production off Columbia was of concern when the fully-loaded Exxon Valdez supertanker changed course to miss hitting one and hit a reef instead, spilling 750,000 barrels of crude oil.

Today, the excursion to the glacier’s face is almost 20% longer than it was during my last visit.   The fastest moving glacier in the world has also lost 1,300 feet of thickness.  Climate warming causes land glaciers to lose mass from run-off, but tidewater glaciers are much more severely impacted.

The Columbia is projected to transition from tidewater to land/shallow water by 2020 after retreating another 10 miles, making it only half the length it was when discovered in 1794.

It will then be stable until the year 2100, according to researchers at the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research and Environmental Science.

I’m no environmental saint. In fact, I drive a Jeep and a Harley and use a commercial-grade blower to manage leaves and pine needles raining down from 110 towering trees on my little city lot a mile from downtown Durham where I still live after retiring several years ago.

Many of my truly environmentalist friends seem on ideological autopilot, as do the few climate change deniers whom I know.  A Yale University survey identified 13% of Americans as the former and 10% as the later.  The majority of Americans were concerned or cautiously concerned.

Like George Marshall, the author of the blog Climate Change Denial, I too wonder “why, when the evidence is so strong, and so many agree that this is our greatest problem, are we doing so little about climate change?”

Even scientists who were climate change skeptics, such as Dr. Richard Muller who established Berkley Earth, have now confirmed that the unsustainable change in global warming we are now experiencing was set in motion by the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1700s

As he noted in an op-ed last month, Muller’s team even predicted the current lull.  While this has caused some deniers to go on the offensive, Muller notes this is not the end of global warming.

Deniers who aren’t robotic seem merely fatalistic, believing that eventually the earth will be uninhabitable again one day so why mitigate it.  Fatalism may also shed light on why so few deniers access ideological neutral explanations such as the series of seven videos at this link.

It doesn’t seem American to give up without a fight.  Would these people be similarly fatalistic if economic freedom was at stake?  Somehow, I don’t think so.

This month in the scientific journal Nature, climate scientists pinpoint that 2047 is when the reality of global warming will be undeniable.  They called it the year of climate departure, not the year of cataclysm, but the tipping point.

Unless I live to be 100 years old, I’ll miss that departure, but my grandsons will only be in their 40s.  The researchers index to a period beginning in 1860 and ending four years before I retired at the end of 2009.

Currently, the Columbia Glacier it is calving off 2 cubic miles a year, according to one study.  “That is five times more fresh water than Alaskans use in a year.”

The point that “deniers” miss is that while the earth has always had periods of climate warming and cooling, the severity of the change underway is due to human activity, period.

But all of the recorded swings have impacted humans.  One need only look to those attributed to the so-called “little ice age” between the early 1300s and the late 1800s to see that.

As my ancestors from North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Massachusetts were converging on the western slopes of the Rockies in the late 1840s, the snout of the glacier feeding the Rhone River extended 1,700 vertical feet further down the Swiss Alps than it does today.

It has pulled back a mile in the past century.  Click here for before and after photos and etchings documenting the change to this glacier and others over that span.  The Portage Glacier attraction I helped evolve in the 1980s during my time in Alaska was a short walk from the road in 1914.

By the time I was born, it was tidewater but still close.  It was barely visible 15 years after I left Alaska for Durham, North Carolina and five years before I retired from community marketing.  In fact, that glacier could only be seen by excursion boat or by air.

Glaciers are something climate scientists study closely because they are, by nature, always in motion.  As an article in the current issue of National Geographic notes:

“Glaciers are supposed to advance and retreat at a glacial pace.  Now they’re disappearing before our eyes.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"The point that “deniers” miss is that while the earth has always had periods of climate warming and cooling, the severity of the change underway is due to human activity, period."

The point that “alarmists” miss is that the term 'severity' has no meaning in science. It is a weasel word, a word laced with emotion, and it is a word used often by the faithful within the secular religion of climate alarmism, period.