Category Archives: Ice & Seas

Melting Arctic: Pictures v. Thousands of Words

Ho hum. Another global heat record.

So, September was the hottest September ever recorded. That’s what NASA told us this week. And August was also a record-busting high, according to NOAA. And in fact, the three months June-August were also the hottest for the planet on record. Of course, we can now extend that to June-September. And NOAA tells us that the chances are very strong that the whole of 2014 will now break all global records for surface heat.

Let’s look at some heat maps, and maybe a couple of charts (yawn).

Global heat anomaly August map (left); June-August long term trends (right).

Global heat anomaly August map (left); June-August long term trends (right).

Doesn’t this make your blood boil?

No, in fact it doesn’t. More statistics, more science, more record-keeping – B.O.R.I.N.G.

Meanwhile, one out of every 165,000,000 Americans has been infected with Ebola in our country, and we can’t talk about anything else. If only we had people in hazmat suits cleaning up the effects of climate change on national TV. If only it threatened our lives, not just our children’s….

Well, I’ve just watched some amazing footage that goes a long way to unmasking the often-invisible hand of manmade climate change. Acclaimed nature photographer James Balog has made a career of hanging off of cliffs and giant redwoods, camera in hand, to bring us face to face with the marvels of creation. And a few years back, he figured that the polar ice could be a tangible way for you and me to witness our impact on the world around us. So Balog launched the Extreme Ice Survey, planting scores of cameras in some of the world’s coldest and most unhospitable places.

The results are amazing, not to mention terrifying. Take a look at this short clip, from Greenland’s enormous Ilulissant Glacier. In less than five minutes, you’ll see a mass of ice equivalent in size to a lower Manhattan, filled on every block with Empire State Buildings, collapsing and washing away in a span of just over one hour.

Like much of Greenland’s ice sheet, Ilulissant is melting and collapsing at breakneck speeds. And for a breathtaking view of Balog’s work in the Arctic, set aside an hour this evening, and watch “Chasing Ice,” his full-length documentary. It’s free, and you can watch it here.

Balog captures the astounding scale of changes occurring in the creation, which are driven by those boring statistics we keep citing. And when you catch your breath, you may find yourself asking, as I did: When I consider the work of your fingers, what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? (Adapted from Psalm 8:4)

We’ve learned that global action to preserve our children’s future won’t be driven by ever more compelling statistics. But when we who call the Creator “our Father” take a hard look with our own eyes at what we’re doing to His gifts, maybe then we’ll find the motivation to take action.

May I Please Have a Water Bottle?

On a recent Sunday morning, September 21, we were packing up with about forty students from Christian colleges as far away as Indiana and North Carolina, headed into New York City for the People’s Climate March. As usual, I bellowed out to everyone as we were walking to the vans: “Make sure you go to the bathroom! Anyone need anything? It’s going to be a long day!”

Sure enough, several of the students did indeed need something. “May I please have a water bottle?”

Oh…. Ah, yes, water bottles.

Let’s be clear. These are absolutely fantastic earth-keeping college students. Many of them are studying environmental biology, or peace and reconciliation issues. Some are just back from studies in post-genocide Rwanda, or are planning organic farming internships for next summer. All of them care enough about God’s creation to have traveled for hours to sleep on the floor for a weekend of climate action. But water bottles?

“You know,” I stammered after an awkward moment, “plastic bottles are something we just don’t use much around here. Um, could we lend you an aluminum canteen?”

Photo by Chris Jordan and The Midway Film Project, who are raising funds to launch a film on Midway plastic pollution.

Photo by Chris Jordan and The Midway Film Project, who are raising funds to launch a film on Midway plastic pollution.

Thank God, awareness of plastic pollution is growing among young people. Many have read about the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” They’ve seen images of decomposed sea birds whose stomachs were filled with brightly-colored plastic bottle caps. They’ve seen photos of Midway Island or the Maldives, beset by an unending sea-borne plastic tsunami. These are the remotest places on earth, and our plastic is all over them.

In our family, we kicked the plastic bottle habit years ago. It’s not always easy, but we manage.

And some major jurisdictions are already taking action. California has now banned single-use plastic bags, following the lead of Mexico City, Dehli, Mumbia, Bangladesh and Rwanda. Here in the U.S., Portland and coastal North Carolina also restrict the use of plastic bags.

But for real change to happen, average Americans like us are going to have to change our attitudes toward packaging – bags, bottles, boxes, and all, and especially plastics. Maybe our hearts need to change, and that might happen if you take a moment to watch a trailer for the Midway film about albatrosses and plastic pollution. Or take three minutes and watch the little film below about where our plastic ends up.

Because your plastic water bottle will still be here for your great-great-great grandchild to deal with. Please watch.

Why Miami is Doomed

“People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.” Luke 17:27

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me news of an amazing transaction. In Miami, a waterfront downtown 1.25-acre lot had sold for the amazing price of $125,000,000. That’s one-hundred twenty-five MILLION dollars. For a little over an acre of land.

Miami 1.25 acres sold for $125 million

Miami 1.25 acres sold for $125 million

Now, if you’re in London, New York or Hong Kong, you’re used to this kind of thing. You know: location, location, location. But Miami is different. Yes, it’s the Magic City, and awash with money from all over the Americas and Europe, fueling enormous real estate, banking and (sadly) drug transactions. But increasingly, people are coming to terms with the fact that that Miami is living on borrowed time. And the time is beginning to look really, really short.

Oh, no. Not another doomsday scenario! Has this thought crossed your mind?

Well, we’ve been talking about Miami’s last days for several years now. But with the passing of time, the most serious doubts have been removed. We’ve learned that Miami is the world’s #1 loser to sea-level rise over the balance of this century, with more than $400 billion of assets exposed to projected sea levels at present. But recently, the evidence has mounted that Miami will succumb long before the tides inundate the city.

Here’s why Miami is headed the way of Atlantis:

  • Global sea levels are rising faster than anyone expected, and will, within decades, inundate much of south Florida.
  • More severe storms are projected for the region, with higher and higher storm surges, aggravating the impact of sea-level rise.
  • Miami suffers from fatal geology: a porous limestone ridge beneath the city permits salt water to bubble up through “swiss cheese” rock formations beneath the ground, making dikes and levees useless.
  • The topography is flat and low, with much of the most expensive infrastructure right on the waterfront. Even Miami’s enormous nuclear power plant is vulnerable to storm surges today.
  • And the city’s freshwater supply is protected by flood gates that are also just barely above high tide at today’s levels, let alone in coming decades as polar ice continues to melt.

These factors make Miami “ground zero” for climate change. That’s why Harold Wanless, chairman of University of Miami’s department of geological sciences has said flatly: “Miami, as we know it today, is doomed. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.” Continue reading

How Civilization Will Collapse

Okay, the title is a bit provocative. It calls to mind a movie from a few years back: “The Day After Tomorrow.” You remember? It was an environmental thriller depicting a cataclysm where climate warming stopped the global “ocean conveyor belt,” a climate-stabilizing current that connects the world’s oceans. Almost overnight, all of Europe and the U.S. simultaneously flood and freeze, arguably eclipsing Noah’s flood in its devastating impact. It’s quite a story. Civilization — we are left to surmise — teeters on the precipice.

The scientific premise of the film was arguably sound. The main problem was, you had to compress events potentially occurring over centuries into a few short hours in order to make it much fun to watch. Since then, I’ve mostly steered clear of warnings about end-of-the-world scenarios, like the runaway collapse of ice sheets or jamming the gears of the ocean conveyor.

Oh yes: and one more – the Global Burp. That’s another civilization-terminator, in which enormous methane deposits are released from Arctic seas and tundra by warming conditions, bubbling or belching to the surface and choking the atmosphere with methane – a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than CO2.

Here’s why the “burp” scenario gives researchers apocalyptic nightmares. Today, there are about 5 gigatons (billion tons) of methane in Earth’s atmosphere. But under the Arctic water and tundra, there are thousands of gigatons of methane hydrates, trapped by little more than the icy water and frozen soils. That’s maybe 100 times more than everything in the air today. And the ice which holds it below the surface is melting fast, as the Arctic heats 3-4 times faster than the rest of the warming world. Release just 1% of those methane hydrates, and you’ve doubled the atmospheric methane.

But as I said, we’ve stayed away from doomsday scenarios, like the Global Burp.

But last week, the news featured this incredible image from the tundra of an uninhabited Siberian peninsula:

Image source: Moscow Times

Image source: Moscow Times

Initially, some thought that it might be the work of a meteorite. Others suspected human mischief. Whatever, it is more than 200 feet across, freshly created, and deeper than the eye can see. And scientists have now measured methane concentrations in its depths thousands of times greater than background levels. So the prevailing theory today is that these are burp craters – the result of explosions from methane destabilized under the warming tundra, to the point that they are ejected in a massive Burp. Some researchers are calling it “Dragon’s Breath.” Continue reading

How Do We Pray When It’s Too Late?

We have been praying.

We have prayed for Kenyan farmers and Sudanese pastoralists beset by the onslaught of advancing deserts and permanent drought. We have prayed for Bangladeshi delta dwellers facing encroachment from rising seas. We have prayed for Filipinos in the path of the most destructive coastal storm ever to make landfall in recorded history. We have prayed for Texans and Californians locked in the grip of the worst fire seasons in memory. We have prayed for Gulf Coast survivors of repeated 100-year storms and devastating oil spills. We have been praying and praying.

And some of us have gone beyond praying for victims, but for the causes of their suffering. Some have prayed for a global awakening to the peril of our abuse of the Creation; for resolve to limit our use of fossil fuels; for a change of heart from powerful people who resist climate action. And some have prayed for specific struggles, like resistance to toxic mountaintop-removal coal mining, mercury poisoning from power-plant smokestack emissions, or the newest carbon menace currently being developed in the Canadian tar-sands fields.

Some of us pray because we believe that the Creation that we love has a chance to recover, if only we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by cutting our use of fossil fuels.

But today, our prayers have been met head-on with a crushing blow. We read of the “collapse” of one of Earth’s three massive ice sheets. In this case, “collapse” means the now-irreversible slide toward certain disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which will add 4 more feet to the inevitable rise in sea levels in a warming world.

“This is really happening,” said Thomas Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now.”

And evangelical climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe added in comments today in an interview with Alexei Laushkin of Evangelical Environmental Network: “These glaciers are melting from the bottom now. It will take time, but these glaciers will now melt. We can’t stop them.”

Unstoppable. Add those 4 feet to the approximately 3 feet of sea level rise widely believed to be “baked in” to the balance of this century, plus the alarming trends in the Greenland ice sheet, and there’s no longer any question about the inevitable result for millions of human souls.

Miami: the world's #1 economic loser to sea-level rise

Miami: the world’s #1 economic loser to sea-level rise

New York, Boston, Miami, Norfolk and New Orleans – all significantly flooded or scarcely recognizable. Kolkata and Mumbai, Guangzhou and Shanghai, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City, London and Amsterdam, Lagos and Alexandria, Dhaka and virtually all of Bangladesh – with exposed populations of more than 100 million people, not counting the additional billions who will likely be forced to migrate because of related failures of infrastructure.

So now, how do we pray? God, don’t let this happen? We’ve enjoyed our consumption-fueling carbon binge, but now, please stop its effects on us and our children?

I don’t find this narrative in the Bible, or anywhere in the history of redemption for that matter. I can’t recall God altering the laws of nature on a global scale because you or I don’t like the consequences of what we’ve done – or what our parents have done. People prayed all over the world in the 1600’s for safety and sustenance, but global climate chaos (cooling, in that time) still wiped out as much as one-third of humanity. I can’t believe that it’s unfaithful to doubt whether the laws of physics will be rewritten simply because of my really earnest prayers.

Perhaps it’s time for praying people to begin to recover the prayer of lament. More than one-third of the Psalms cry out in lament. Psalm 42 is a familiar one, among many: “My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, Where is your God?”

And then there’s the book of Lamentations. If you’re at all like me, you might even have difficulty finding it. But if our church hymns or worship songs are mainly of the “Victory-in-Jesus” variety, it may do us good to find it more often: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lamentations 1:16).

What’s the point of lament? If you’re wondering this, it’s little wonder: Our prevailing theology today is rooted in the idea that God’s kingdom is progressing everywhere, as is our sanctification. The gospel working in us has made us better, somehow. If we’re Americans, our exceptionalist mythology adds to it the remarkable notion that we can overcome virtually anything because we’re special. And if we’re Evangelicals, perhaps we add to these notions the call that we should take all this triumphalist energy to some poor corner of the world that desperately needs us and our message, and then all will be well – or at least better.

But as we read the Gospels, this illusion is rudely interrupted by Jesus the Christ himself. St. Mark’s gospel gives us this synopsis of his very first sermon: “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe….” Repent?  The first thing the Bearer of “good news” has to tell us is that we need to repent? Little wonder that these words don’t mean much to us: We haven’t been weeping. We can handle it. All things are possible. It’s never too late.

But now, we’re confronted with those dreaded words: Too late. We can’t make it all better. Whatever prayer we pray, whatever new laws we pass, whatever votes we cast – West Antarctica is collapsing, and the seas will rise in an unstoppable tide.

How to pray? How to pray when it’s too late?

Perhaps our prayers can be informed by this modest proposition: Yes, it’s too late for West Antarctica, and for the children of people living on today’s low-lying coastal regions. But it’s not too late for anything. Sure, West Antarctica’s collapsing glaciers hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 4 feet. But the rest of Antarctica holds enough ice to raise sea levels by more than 180 feet. And the world’s most imperiled ice sheet on Greenland could account for another 23 feet.

Perhaps it’s obvious to us all. Our prayers of lament will only lead us to repentance, and real repentance is always active. Pray. Pour out grief for what is lost. And then do everything we can to salvage what can still be protected.

“By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” Psalm 137:1-3.

For a thoughtful meditation on the role of lament in God’s kingdom, please visit Sojourners website for a powerful article by Soong-Chan Rah. 

Typhoon Phailin Sets its Sights on Indian Coast

Grant Walsh, a friend of ours in Kolkata, India, first alerted us by FB this morning to the threat of a monster storm – Typhoon Phailin – bearing down on India’s east coast on the Bay of Bengal. I was reading the Times, so I scoured the paper, and the website for more info. Nothing.

Fortunately, there are other ways. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • Phailin headed for Indian coast SE of Kolkata

    Phailin headed for Indian coast SE of Kolkata

    Typhoon Phailin (pronounced “pie-leen,” and meaning “sapphire”) is about half as large as the entire Indian subcontinent, and headed toward Brahmapur, Odisha State (almost midway down the coast between Kolkata in the north and the southern tip of the country).

  • The term “typhoon” is the Pacific equivalent of Atlantic “hurricane;” both can be called “tropical cyclones.” Phailin is currently Category 4, and unlikely to lose any strength prior to landfall projected for Saturday morning. There’s talk of Category 5 by then. (Note: Hurricane Katrina was Category 3.)
  • India and Bangladesh and Southeast Asia are extremely vulnerable to tropical cyclones. The world’s ten deadliest cyclones all hit the Bay of Bengal or the West Pacific, and they killed at least 2.2 million people. Hurricane Katrina – which killed 1,800 – doesn’t even make the top 35. A single cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 1970 killed between 300,000 and 500,000 people.
  • Odisha State, where this storm is likely to hit, is badly exposed to storm surges, which are expected in the range of 5-8 feet above tidal peaks. The topography is very low, with many river systems. 40 million people live here.
Low-lying Odisha is vulnerable to storm surges

Low-lying Odisha is vulnerable to storm surges

This is a storm, and a threat to many precious lives.  It is not a case study in global climatic disruptions, or a matter for debating societies. From our relative comfort here at home, we will have to pray, to dig deep, and to give generously after this thing has passed.

But if you can stand it, watch closely as the news unfolds, because this is a glimpse of what sea-level rise will look like in a world of melting glaciers and ice caps. In fact, nearby Kolkata is ranked number one among cities of the world in population at risk from rising seas. (Miami is number one in value of assets at risk.) If this storm should veer north and hit Kolkata, none could fathom the extent of sorrow and suffering.

And as we in America continue to delay and resist action on climatic threats, I beg you, let us refrain from referring to this as an “act of God.”

Grace and peace to you.

J. Elwood

Did I Hear that Arctic Ice is GROWING?

Before church yesterday, one of my dear friends shared some great news with me.

“I heard that Arctic sea ice is up 98 percent! Is that right? It’s actually growing!” he told me in a moment of sincere friendly encouragement. Who knows, maybe the efforts of people like me were beginning to pay off!

I was doubtful. I knew this year’s summer melt wasn’t as bad as last year’s catastrophe. The summer ice retreat of 2012 demolished every prior record for Arctic ice melting by miles – more than a quarter million square miles, actually. Compared to the prior record melt in 2007, it was as though we had destroyed a chunk of sea ice big enough to cover the states of Texas and West Virginia combined. 2012 was absolutely awful, capping a 30-year death spiral for Arctic sea ice.

Worse yet, it showed how climate models often err on the conservative side. The U.N. climate panel’s most recent report had projected that we’d reach last year’s level of Arctic melt sometime between 2044 and 2064. We were frighteningly ahead of schedule.

So you can imagine my doubts. In one year, the problem is solved? No more Arctic melting worries? I thought I’d better check.

Continue reading