When it comes to civilization’s end, Al Gore’s theory was simple and elegant: Increased heat (a product of the Greenhouse Effect, the Koch Brothers, the hole in the ozone layer, etc.) leads Earth’s great swaths of ice to melt, which leads the seas to rise, which leads to the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” becoming a prophetic song, in addition to a cult one.
Alas, Antarctica, which accounts for 90 percent of the world’s ice, is not melting. Just the opposite. According to a NASA study published this week in the Journal of Glaciology, “An increase in Antarctic snow accumulation that began 10,000 years ago is currently adding enough ice to the continent to outweigh the increased losses from its thinning glaciers.” That finding contradicts the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which in 2013 declared that Antarctica was losing land ice.
The study reports that, between 1992 and 2001, the ice sheet that covers the continent — a polar desert of some 5.4 million square miles, or about the size of the United States and Mexico combined — gained 112 billion tons of ice annually, and from 2003 to 2008 added 82 billion tons a year. And, contrary to the IPCC’s conclusion, Antarctica is not contributing to sea-level rise — in fact, it is slowing the rate of rise by 0.23 millimeters annually.
This might be considered good news. But the lead author of the study, NASA glaciologist Jay Zwally, predictably warns otherwise: “I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out,” he told Nature. “It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.” Zwally maintains that land-ice losses in other parts of Antarctica will overtake these gains “in 20 or 30 years.”
Of course, when it comes to forecasts, Zwally has a spotty track record. He suggested in 2007 that “the Arctic Ocean could be nearly ice-free at the end of summer by 2012, much faster than previous predictions.” Three years after Doomsday, there is still plenty of sea ice (frozen seawater that floats atop the ocean) at the North Pole — more than 1.7 million square miles of it, even at its minimum this year.
Over the past several years, climate scientists have pointed to sea ice, too, as an indicator of dangerous warming trends. When 35,000 walruses gathered on the shores of northern Alaska last fall, scientists blamed the blubbery beach party on a decline in Arctic sea ice. It was not so. NASA frets about the loss of sea-ice coverage — 13 percent per decade since the late 1970s, it claims — but sea ice is an unreliable indicator of purported long-term global warming; it is heavily subject to the vagaries of wind and weather. Meanwhile, Antarctic sea ice has been on the increase — almost, if not quite, canceling the decrease near the opposite pole.
Additionally, melting sea ice would raise sea levels only a hair. Even if all of the planet’s sea ice were to melt — a volume of 46,600 cubic miles — sea levels would rise . . . 5 millimeters. Throw in the massive Antarctic ice shelves, which are land ice pushed out onto the sea, and the seas would rise . . . 47 millimeters, or 1.9 inches. And given the size of the ice masses in question, it would take decades for that melting to occur.