Jeff Goodell on the Doomsday Glacier

December 31, 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)

Rignot realized, in the period after this kind of blew up, that maybe some people were running too hard with his statement, and in a subsequent interview in 2018, he walked it back, a little, pointing out that if humans take aggressive actions, there are processes that could slow, or even halt the ice sheets.


One Response to “Jeff Goodell on the Doomsday Glacier”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Richard Alley: …a lot of the modeling says no, if we hold the warming to a small enough value we stay here, and sea level rise is slow, small and expected.”

    (1) We’ve seen how often models have underpredicted how fast things would worsen, so that’s not reassuring to me.

    (2) I don’t think this species can “hold the warming to a small enough value” anyway.

    The Social Justice Warrior in me does appreciate that there’s some very expensive real estate on the front line of sea level rise…at least in the US.

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