Might be the best metaphor to come out of 2021.

Jeff Goodell’s recent Rolling Stone piece about Thwaites Glacier has gotten a lot of attention, as has the story generally. See MSNBC’s Chris Hayes talk with Jeff from last night, above.

My concern, that I shared with Jeff, was that there is a lot of confusion about the difference between “ice shelf” and “ice sheet”. The story that came out of the recent American Geophysical Union conference, is that new research shows vulnerability in the Thwaites Ice shelf, the tongue, or “finger nail’ as Jeff puts it, of ice that floats ahead of the ice sheet out into the ocean.
That shelf acts like a buttress on a cathedral, or keystone in an arch, in that it behaves as kind of a plug on the ice sheet behind it.
If the shelf breaks up, the sheet can begin to move more rapidly into the sea. The shelf, research shows, has weaknesses that might make it break up in as soon as 5 years.

Members of what I call the “Doom Patrol” – catastrophists on the extreme end of the climate movement, take that to mean that in 5 years we will see several meters of sea level rise. That’s not what it means.

It means the Ice Sheet might begin to move faster, but “faster” in this sense is a relative term. We are still talking about decadal, if not century time scales.
Below, in a video from last year, I asked Jeff Severinghaus of Scripps Oceanographic Institute, “How would we know if an ice sheet was collapsing?”
Good question, it turns out.
“We are possibly in a collapse right now,” he told me, “but I would say, it’s not very likely. But we can’t rule it out either.”
They might collapse later, but it will take ongoing measurements to assess, over years. Problem is, a lot depends on the topography of the underlying bedrock, about which we know very little.
In the meantime, there is a LOT that humanity can do to slow down, or even arrest that process.
We are still the biggest control knob.

The title for the Rolling Stone piece “The Fuse has Blown”, comes from an interview that John Cook and I conducted with Eric Rignot in 2014, again at AGU. ( see below)

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It’s already happening in California fire-risk areas – and too an extent in Florida’s coastal flooding zone.
How much longer are Insurance companies going to bear the risk of homeowners in at-risk areas?

Rude shock coming for a lot of homeowners.

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I’m working on a review of the massive mid-December Derecho and Tornado event that rolled across the midwest, which shocked even a lot of jaded scientists.
Above, Jeff Berardelli’s CBS report from today underlines that the extremes of recent months are not tapering off, not in our lifetimes at any rate.
Happy New Year.

I spoke to MacArthur “Genius” award winner Peter Gleick about water issues and drought. Above, he reminded us about the critical need for water to cool thermal (coal, gas, nuclear) power plants, and the comparison to renewables, which need none.

Below, Dr. Gleick on measures we can take to conserve and extend out water resources.

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A limiting factor is a variable of a system that causes a noticeable change in output or another measure of a type of system. – Wiki

China has a water problem, the severity of which will affect plans for dealing with energy, and climate.

Hal Brands in Bloomberg:

China’s water situation is particularly grim. As Gopal Reddy notes, China possesses 20% of the world’s population but only 7% of its fresh water. Entire regions, especially in the north, suffer from water scarcity worse than that found in a parched Middle East.

Thousands of rivers have disappeared, while industrialization and pollution have spoiled much of the water that remains. By some estimates, 80% to 90% of China’s groundwater and half of its river water is too dirty to drink; more than half of its groundwater and one-quarter of its river water cannot even be used for industry or farming.

This is an expensive problem. China is forced to divert water from comparatively wet regions to the drought-plagued north; experts assessthat the country loses well over $100 billion annually as a result of water scarcity. Shortages and unsustainable agriculture are causing the desertification of large chunks of land. Water-related energy shortfalls have become common across the country.

The government has promoted rationing and improvements in water efficiency, but nothing sufficient to arrest the problem. This month, Chinese authorities announced that Guangzhou and Shenzhen — two major cities in the relatively water-rich Pearl River Delta — will face severe drought well into next year.

The economic and political implications are troubling. By making growth cost more, China’s resource problems have joined an array of other challenges — demographic decline, an increasingly stifling political climate, the stalling or reversal of many key economic reforms — to cause a slowdown that was having pronounced effects even before Covid struck. China’s social compact will be tested as dwindling resources intensify distributional fights.

In 2005, Premier Wen Jiabao stated that water scarcity threatened the “very survival of the Chinese nation.” A minister of water resources declared that China must “fight for every drop of water or die.” Hyperbole aside, resource scarcity and political instability often go hand in hand.

Heightened foreign tensions may follow. China watchers worry that if the Chinese Communist Party feels insecure domestically, it may lash out against its international rivals. Even short of that, water problems are causing geopolitical strife.

Much of China’s fresh water is concentrated in areas, such as Tibet, that the communist government seized by force after taking power in 1949. For years, China has tried to solve its resource challenges by coercing and impoverishing its neighbors.

By building a series of giant dams on the Mekong River, Beijing has triggered recurring droughts and devastating floods in Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and Laos that depend on that waterway. The diversion of rivers in Xinjiang has had devastating downstream effects in Central Asia.

A growing source of tension in the Himalayas is China’s plan to dam key waters before they reach India, leaving that country (and Bangladesh) the losers. As the Indian strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney puts it, “China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas … has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins.”

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