Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Earthquakes and Icebergs

We tend to look at earthquakes with surprise and fear, rather than as something with a moral dimension. We assign blame to the victims for living too close to an active fault, or to buildings too unsteady, or to fate. We don’t read headlines about the real cause of large earthquake fatalities, which is our population. Somehow prescriptions for that are left lying on the counter while days are spent re-living familiar discussions of building codes and rescue efforts.

With snow falling today back in Tennessee, we are reading about the end of this year’s Antarctic summer.

Satellite imagery from ESA tells the tale -- a final tendril of ice where the main Wilkins ice shelf grips Charcot Island shrinks and shrinks, and then in a death-embracing fingertip farewell, slides away into the deep.

Here, 11 years ago, was Mercer's prediction, in Nature 271:321-325 (1978):
“One warning sign that a dangerous warming is beginning in Antarctica, will be a breakup of ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula just south of the recent January 0°C isotherm; the ice shelf in the Prince Gustav Channel on the east side of the peninsula, and the Wordie Ice Shelf; the ice shelf in George VI Sound, and the ice shelf in Wilkins Sound on the west side.”
As other commenters have now observed, Wilkins was the last one mentioned. The rest are already departed.

Last month ocean scientists doubled their estimates for global sea level rise by 2100. Places in Northern hemisphere like New York, Amsterdam and London will be particularly hard hit due to uneven distribution of rising waters by currents, while places like Miami, Houston and Havana may have more time to prepare.

Shortly after this report, President Obama told an audience gathered at Prague:
"To protect our planet, now is the time to change the way that we use energy. Together we must confront climate change by ending the world's dependency on fossil fuels by tapping the power from the sources of energy like the wind and the sun and calling upon all nations to do their part. And I pledge to you that in this global effort the US is now ready to lead."
What the President was silent about was the population earthquake, although its foreshocks are warning us now, if we pause to listen.

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