Antarctica’s ice sheet is melting at a rapidly increasing rate, now pouring more than 200 billion tons of ice into the ocean annually and raising sea levels a half-millimeter every year, a team of 80 scientists reported Wednesday.
The melt rate has tripled in the past decade, the study concluded. If the acceleration continues, some of scientists’ worst fears about rising oceans could be realized, leaving low-lying cities and communities with less time to prepare than they had hoped.
The result also reinforces that nations have a short window — perhaps no more than a decade — to cut greenhouse-gas emissions if they hope to avert some of the worst consequences of climate change.
This is not going to happen. You know it, and I know it. Unless there’s some technological magic bullet, we aren’t going to grind national economies to a halt for something as abstract as preventing the deaths of billions. (I’m only being slightly sarcastic here.)
The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches (15 centimeters) to sea-level rise by 2100. That is at the upper end of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated Antarctica alone could contribute to sea level rise this century.
“Around Brooklyn you get flooding once a year or so, but if you raise sea level by 15 centimeters then that’s going to happen 20 times a year,” said Andrew Shepherd, a professor of earth observation at the University of Leeds and the lead author of the study.
If that ice sheet [Antarctica] were to disintegrate, it could raise the level of the sea by more than 160 feet — a potential apocalypse, depending on exactly how fast it happened. Recent research suggests that if society burns all the fossil fuels known to exist, the collapse of the ice sheet will become inevitable.
Improbable as such a large rise might sound, something similar may have already happened, and recently enough that it is still lodged in collective memory.
In the 19th century, ethnographers realized that virtually every old civilization had some kind of flood myth in its literature.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, waters so overwhelm the mortals that the gods grow frightened, too. In India’s version, Lord Vishnu warns a man to take refuge in a boat, carrying seeds. In the Bible, God orders Noah to carry two of every living creature on his ark.
“I don’t think the biblical deluge is just a fairy tale,” said Terence J. Hughes, a retired University of Maine glaciologist living in South Dakota. “I think some kind of major flood happened all over the world, and it left an indelible imprint on the collective memory of mankind that got preserved in these stories.”
That flooding would have occurred at the end of the last ice age.
Beginning perhaps 25,000 years ago, after the orbit shifted again, the ice sheets began to melt and the sea level began to rise. Over several thousand years, coastlines receded inland by as much as a hundred miles.
Human civilization did not yet exist, but early societies of hunters and gatherers lived along most of the world’s shorelines, and they would have watched the inundation claim their lands.
That’s a fascinating thought: that flood myths are the ways aboriginal human communities kept alive memory of a global catastrophe.
As readers of The Benedict Option know, I used the Great Flood of the Bible as a metaphor for what’s going on now in terms of religion, culture, and civilization. We are living through an inundation the likes of which the West has not seen since Rome’s collapse. The Marxist sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it “liquid modernity.” Here’s what Wikipedia says about the concept:
Zygmunt Bauman, who introduced the idea of liquid modernity, wrote that its characteristics are about the individual, namely increasing feelings of uncertainty and the privatization of ambivalence. It is a kind of chaotic continuation of modernity, where a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner. Nomadism becomes a general trait of the ‘liquid modern’ man as he flows through his own life like a tourist, changing places, jobs, spouses, values and sometimes more—such as political or sexual orientation—excluding himself from traditional networks of support, while also freeing himself from the restrictions or requirements those networks impose.
Bauman stressed the new burden of responsibility that fluid modernism placed on the individual—traditional patterns would be replaced by self-chosen ones. Entry into the globalized society was open to anyone with their own stance and the ability to fund it, in a similar way as was the reception of travellers at the old-fashioned caravanserai. The result is a normative mindset with emphasis on shifting rather than on staying—on provisional in lieu of permanent (or ‘solid’) commitment—which (the new style) can lead a person astray towards a prison of their own existential creation.
The rate of change in late modernity (our time) has sped up so quickly that all that is solid melts, and the water covers and obscures our familiar landscape.
It is interesting to contemplate the fact that the same thing that is causing the glaciers to melt and the inundation of low-lying areas — industrial, technological, and economic progress — is an intrinsic part of the same phenomenon that is dissolving religions, families, politics, and so forth.
And yet, there are so many people who have erected mental dikes against reality, believing somehow that by sheer power of will, they can turn back the rising tide! This, instead of learning how to adapt by building arks (I’m speaking metaphorically) capable of riding out the Great Flood — the literal one, and the symbolic one.