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Settled Science
Antarctic Meltwater Isn’t the Crisis We Thought It Was

Liquid water formations on top of Antarctica’s ice sheets aren’t the harbinger of climate doom scientists believed them to be, according to new research from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

Meltwater collects on top of Antarctic ice during the summer, and the weight of that liquid water can fracture the underlying ice, cleaving off sections of the sheet. These sections then tumble into the ocean, contributing to sea level increases in the process. But according to geophysicist Robin Bell, this meltwater doesn’t always pool up in these ice-top lakes—after studying years of satellite imagery, it was determined that much of the meltwater forms a vast system of streams and rivers culminating in waterfalls that cascade into the surrounding ocean, alleviating the pressure on the underlying ice sheet. The WSJ reports:

Since the river Dr. Bell’s paper describes diverts meltwater off the ice shelf instead of letting it collect in ponds, it potentially could mitigate the fracturing effects of meltwater, says Alison Banwell, a glaciologist at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge who wasn’t involved in the research. The ice shelves will “still become more unstable as the climate warms,” Dr. Banwell says, but they might not break up as rapidly as otherwise thought. It is unknown whether rivers and waterfalls form on other ice shelves, she says. […]

The movement “changes the way we think about the impact of meltwater,” Dr. Bell says. “Meltwater is still a bad thing,” she says, but it’s “not always going to be a death to ice shelves.”

Good climate change news is hard to find, but this is a clear-cut example of it, and it’s worth highlighting because it reminds us of the extraordinary intricacy of the planet’s climate. In the face of this nearly incomprehensible complexity, we ought to be humble about our current scientific understanding, and acknowledgement that climate research is—like any scientific endeavor—still very much a work in progress.

Climate models will need to incorporate this new twist in Antarctic meltwater, and their predictions should become less dire than they currently are. But this isn’t the first wrinkle in climate science, and we can say with absolute certainty that it won’t be the last. Climate change is a real phenomenon, and its link to human activities is at this point well understood, but the details of the system and the ways in which its countless variables interact with one another are much less clear to us.

There’s an urgent need to push the boundary of climate science beyond where it is today; this is a subject that demands much more scrutiny than it’s currently getting, and more funding as well. But greens that haughtily declare this branch of science to be somehow “settled” at once betray their ignorance of the way the scientific method works and undermine their own cause—how foolish over-confident environmentalists look time and again when stories like this one crop up! The truth is, this is far from settled, and we can acknowledge the basic consensus of anthropogenic climate change while still pushing for further study of the issue.

In the meantime, take those predictions of climate models with a healthy grain of salt.

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  • Unelected Leader

    You’ve got the green on the outside, red commie on the inside watermelons who are so ignorant they think melting icebergs and ice shelf’s raise the sea level when they’re already floating on the water like a giant ice cube.
    Glaciers, like the beardmore glacier, would add to the sea level rising, but only if they melt extremely quickly and the timeless cycle of water moving through all three states is somehow disrupted globally.

  • ——————————

    The only “crisis” for the left, is the left….

    • D4x

      And this is why the left/DNC circa 2017 is saying ‘clean environment’ instead of ‘climate change’ . Looks like lead is making a comeback…

  • I’m not sure better climate “models” are the answer since models try to “mimic” the past by changing the parameters to equations which may or may not reflect the underlying dynamics. None of the models separately, let alone collectively, predicted the current moderation in warming.

    As for pumping more money into climate science, part of the problem is that more money can act as an incentive to stoke more alarmist scenarios. Almost all of the funding in the field today is there because of the fear of global warming.

    The points Lomborg made in his The Skeptical Environmentalist still make the most sense.

    • CosmotKat

      Good point, Luke. Might I suggest taking a look at this article by Francis Menton who goes by the Manhattan Contrarian., Some Critical Thinking On The Subject Of The Feasibility Of Renewables

  • Kevin

    I don’t think “it’s link to human activity” is all that well understood at all. Carbon dioxide does not warm the atmosphere that much; it is hypothesized that warming it induces will create a positive feedback mechanism (mainly through increased water vapor trapping even more heat) that will amplify warming caused by increases in CO2 and this will then lead to a runaway increase in temperatures. However this feedback is only very poorly understood and may in fact dampen CO2’s warming mechanisms (fir example by increasing reflective cloud cover). Further natural volatility in temperatures (due to solar cycles, the earth’s orbital eccentricities, and vulcanism for example) are even more poorly understood.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Absolutely correct. When I see all of this pompous certainty about the purported causes of a phenomenon that we cannot even properly define, much less demonstrate, I am more amused than anything else. Discussing possible causes of AGW (if such a thing even exists, which seems unlikely) without any mention of the big fusion reactor in the sky that powers our biosphere displays such a colossal level of ignorance that the individuals doing so typically lose an real credibility in my eyes.

      • Andrew Allison

        It would be amusing if the costs this crock of pseudo-science as imposed on us all, and not just those of here but those paying the price for diverted grain, etc., were not so high.

        • f1b0nacc1

          My wife is a dedicated DIYer….I have to show that one to her!

          Thanks, you gave me a big smile today….

    • Jim__L

      All of this points to one conclusion — the climate is chaotic, just like the weather.

  • CosmotKat

    “In the face of this nearly incomprehensible complexity, we ought to be humble about our current scientific understanding, and acknowledgement that climate research is—like any scientific endeavor—still very much a work in progress.”

    Herein lies the truth which the left refuses to grasp. The politicization of this issue is why we are at an impasse. The left accuses the right of being anti-science yet it is the right that truly supports science done right. Where this author goes wrong is in this statement: “Climate change is a real phenomenon, and its link to human activities is at this point well understood,”

    No, it’s not. Recently the new head of the EPA said, “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.” I think he putting forth a common sense statement and a leading expert on climate, Judith Curry agrees saying, “I do not find anything to disagree with in what he said: we don’t know how much of recent warming can be attributed to humans. In my opinion, this is correct and is a healthy position for both the science and policy debates.”

    The writer concludes by saying, “In the meantime, take those predictions of climate models with a healthy grain of salt.”
    Yeah, no kidding. As a result of the politicization and premature re-ordering our economic system has already cost us lots billions of dollars and for what, a minuscule change that is nearly impossible to detect? The Manhattan Contrarian has an article critiquing the publication Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, titled “Burden of proof: A comprehensive review of the feasibility of 100% renewable-electricity systems.” It’s worth the time reading his assessment. You can find it here:

    • ——————————

      Like I always say…you can’t take a 100 year slice of a 5 billion year old planet and make a reliable determination about anything….

      • CosmotKat

        You said it well.

    • Andrew Allison

      Let’s be clear, climate change is real — it changes all the time, always has, always will. What’re unknown, despite the insistence of the high priests of AGW and their acolytes, are the impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on global temperature, and the impact of global temperature on climate.

      • CosmotKat

        Indeed it does, Andrew. Yesterday it was around 50 deg and today it’s 72 deg. That’s the kind of climate change I like!

  • Boritz

    Bottle it, give it a fancy name, and sell it to the usual crowd for 40 cents an ounce.

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s already got a fancy name and slogan: Antarctic Meltwater, drink it to save the planet. LOL

      • f1b0nacc1

        Apropos that…

        • Andrew Allison

          So we don’t even need to transport the water from Antarctica, just print up the labels and fill the bottles with tap water. LOL

  • FriendlyGoat

    Tell me what concerns, if any, on this matter are raised today in the city councils and chambers of commerce of coastal areas, and I’ll tell you where the science stands. If/when you find local pragmatists raising their eyebrows about their LOCAL futures, that’s where the debate might matter. It’s not really a good subject for parlor debate in Denver.

  • Andrew Allison

    Let’s stat calling it Unsettled Science! My tired old brain is puzzled though — doesn’t the meltwater weigh the same as the ice which produced it? In which case, the whole concept of meltwater cracking the ice is typical “climate science”.

    • Jim__L

      Meltwater exerts the same force without adding to tensile strength, and it can also flow much faster than solid ice. Modeling this would be a nightmare, though.

      • Andrew Allison

        Well yes, but the argument is that the weight of the water is cracking ice underneath it, so isn’t the tensile strength of the water irrelevant?

        • Jim__L

          It’s possible that a better way to pose the problem would be to evaluate how the thinning of the sheet leads to cracking, when meltwater remains on top of it.

          • Andrew Allison

            The thinning of the ice sheet is negligible in terms of its thickness; then there’s the weight of snowfall every winter to consider. It’s possible that there is some other explanation for the cracking; my point was it can’t possibly be the weight of the water, which is what the “scientists” claim.

  • wri

    I’m more convinced than some of the comments below that we know that human caused global warming is a serious problem. While we may not know just how “serious” or what can and should be done about it, we have sufficent information to put us on notice that we should learn all we can about the subject. The problem is that through group-think and intolerance, the global warming scientific community and its political advocates have short-circuited the scientific process, so that the only information deemed scientifically credible is that which tends to confirm the most catastrophic predictions.

  • Che Guevara

    “Who knew climate science could be this complicated?”
    What are the qualifications of journalists from The American Interest to opinionate on scientific matters? Have any of them published anything in peer-reviewed scientific journals?
    What journalists are good at is twisting and misrepresenting scientific facts. The American Interest is using Robin Bell’s research to question the consensus on global warming, even though neither she nor Alison Banwell deny that consensus. This article is an example of journalistic dishonesty and mendacity.

  • Che Guevara

    It’s amazing how many readers here are willing to opinionate on scientific matters with great conviction. But how many of you have actually published anything in peer-reviewed scientific journals? What makes you think that you’re qualified to opinionate on scientific matters? Reply to this post if you have published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

    • Mike

      This piece is merely an opinion of TIA reporter on a piece written by WSJ reporter, which in turn is based on a pitch by the U of Cambridge PR office. It is obvious that everyone involved in this chain is incompetent, and so is the target audience.

      Those of us whose job description includes writing and publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals generally know better than to embarrass ourselves by voicing a firm opinion on scientific matters outside our immediate areas of expertise.

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