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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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