Geoscientist: Warming Polar Regions Trigger 'Unstoppable’ Ice Melting, Sea-level Rise

Mar 18, 2016

The ripple effects of polar ice-melting …


Julie Brigham-Grette paraphrases a popular advertising slogan to explain why the rapid warming under way in the Arctic should concern more people than just those who live up here.

“The Arctic matters, because what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” she says.

Brigham-Grette says warming in both the Arctic and Antarctic is triggering changes in weather patterns and sea levels worldwide. She heads the Geosciences Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and she and other experts described those climate-change impacts in stark terms in a briefing held during Arctic Science Summit Week at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

Julie Brigham-Grette, center, talked Monday with media covering Arctic Science Summit Week with, left, Uma Bhatt, professor and chair of the UAF Department of Atmospheric Science, and Jim Overland, research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Credit UAF

“The rate it’s happening is faster than we’ve ever seen in geologic history – that we have the capacity to measure.”

Brigham-Grette says the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has set in motion a chain of events that’s warming the Arctic twice as fast as the rest of the planet, melting Arctic sea ice and the icesheets that cover Greenland and Antarctica. And, raising sea levels at an accelerating pace, “even in the best-case scenario, maybe as much as a meter. And that’s probably a minimum, conservative minimum. It may be worse than that.”

She says melting has made portions of the polar icesheets unstable and prone to imminent collapse.

“The glaciologists are arguing it’s really unstoppable,” she said. “There’s no way for us to turn that mechanism off.”

Brigham-Grette says that poses a danger to coastal regions, especially off Alaska and the eastern United States. She says due to quirks in the Earth’s gravitation pull, those regional sea levels will rise at least 10 percent higher than the global mean sea level.

“We really need to take this quite seriously,” she said.

Brigham-Grette says the situation is urgent, and demands a response. Including rapid transition away from fossil fuels, the source of the climate-changing carbon dioxide, and toward alternative energy sources. She concedes that’s a hard truth for Arctic states that depend on developing those resources.

“It’s a particularly difficult for economies like Russia. Or even the economy of Alaska.”

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of reports based on presentations given during Arctic Science Summit Week.