The Danger Comes from Antarctica – What To Do, an Italian Climatologist Speaks Out

The glaciers of eastern Antarctica have begun to melt, which could “remodel the coasts of the world”. The alarm, because this is what it is, comes from NASA scientists.

Satellite images have shown that a group of glaciers that extends for an eighth of East Antarctica – long considered to be more stable than its western neighbor – began to lose ice. Loss of ice from these places can cause “widespread changes in the ocean”.

NASA Research

The research, conducted by NASA glaciologist Catherine Walker, was carried out using detailed maps showing ice velocity and surface height elevation, created by a new NASA project to trace the movement of ice in the world from 2008 onward.

This map shows the flow of the Antarctic ice sheet as measured from the tracking of subtle surface features across millions of Landsat repeat image pairs. The “donut hole” marks the maximum latitude visible by the Landsat satellites. The data used for this map is an early version of the NASA MEaSUREs ITS_LIVE project and was produced by Alex Gardner, NASA-JPL. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens

It has been discovered that the Totten Glacier, the biggest glacier in East Antarctica, which contains enough ice to raise the sea level by at least 11 feet (3.3 meters) is losing ice due to “warming of ocean waters” and several smaller glaciers nearby are responding in a similar manner.

Walker found that four glaciers in Vincennes Bay, west of Totten, have lost height by about 9 feet or 2.7 meters while a series of glaciers along the Wilkes Land coast has doubled the rate of sinking since 2009, with the surface falling about a quarter of a meter per year.

“These two groups of glaciers drain the two largest sub-glacial basins of eastern Antarctica, and both basins are grounded below sea level,” Walker wrote in his research. She added on a more ominous note: 

“If warm water can get far enough back, it can progressively reach deeper and deeper ice. This would likely speed up glacier melt and acceleration, but we don’t know yet how fast that would happen. Still, that’s why people are looking at these glaciers, because if you start to see them picking up speed, that suggests that things are destabilizing.”

What to do – an Italian Climatologist Speaks Out

Impakter Italia’s Stefano Iannaccone talked to Luca Mercalli, climatologist and president of the Italian Meteorological Society on 8 May 2019. In this  interview, he launches a new alarm. And proposes solutions.

Time is up, the increase in temperatures cannot be stopped. But we can try to stem it, avoiding the total catastrophe that would put the planet under water. To do this will require an immediate change in everyone’s personal lifestyle and in the economy’s production model.

Let’s go straight to the heart of the problem: how much time is there to stop the climate drift?

If we talk about stopping altogether, we have no more time. We lost it in previous decades. They were already known problems in 1992, when the United Nations held the first world climate convention in Rio de Janeiro. We are already steeped in the disease, we can only reduce the symptoms. Let me give you the example of a fever: we have a fever at 38 °. Even if we treat it immediately, the fever continues to rise to at least 39 °; however that is certainly better than going all the way up to 42 °. The numbers are the same for the climate. We have already grown by a degree. If we do all that the Paris agreement expects, there will be another increase. But if we do nothing, by the end of the century you can expect an increase of 5 degrees.

Weather phenomena are increasingly extreme. What is the link with climate change?

The weather phenomena are extreme on two scores. But what matters is that they are short-lived and affect small areas of the planet. When we talk about global warming, we are interested in what happens to the entire planet, not to the individual city; and it concerns the long-term trend over the years, not what happens in three days. In Italy, 2018 was the hottest in history: the Italian climate graph has been rising for years. Then, in between, anomalous episodes occur. Maybe in a month we’ll complain about the cold instead of the heat.

We live surrounded by water. What will happen to Italy in the near future?

The oceans in the world are growing at 3.5 millimeters per year. The problem is already here with us, the sea has already increased by 20 centimeters in the last century. And the more the glaciers melt, the higher the water levels. You cannot solve the problem once the sea has increased by one meter: it cannot be emptied. We must think of containing it starting now.

Britain has declared a climate emergency. In Italy the media is ignoring the environment. Why isn’t the rescue of the planet of interest to Italians?

The problem is insufficient scientific education. Newspapers talk about the environment, but in back pages, almost never on the front page. The little good information that is produced is not considered a priority. I am thinking of the alarm given by the United Nations about the possible extinction of many species. Only La Repubblica featured a photo on the front page, but it wasn’t the main title. Yet our very existence is at stake.

What can we do everyday to fight global warming?

First of all: don’t leave rubbish in the environment, produce less waste by being more careful, focus on recycling. Then there is energy: we waste a lot of it, houses are energy sieves, although there are ways to cut back on consumption by as much as 80% that can also save a lot on bills. There are government subsidies to make our buildings more energy efficient. Transport is another sector: have a car that consumes little instead of an SUV, use public transport or if possible bikes, reduce air travel, even though with low-cost flights everyone is tempted by exotic vacations. Finally, the last area is that of food: eat little meat, which causes a lot of emissions to produce, buy local products that have not been transported all over the planet, and eat seasonal products. For example, strawberries at Christmas have been grown in a greenhouse or have arrived on a plane trip.

And how is it possible to quickly change a production system still tied to twentieth-century logics?

Even the United Nations has written that our economic system is in conflict with the environment. We must have the courage to question it: we must understand that a system based on infinite growth, in a world of finite dimensions, cannot function. We need an international institution on economic transition, formed by the best economists in the world, for the development of a new model. Investment in knowledge is essential to identify a different system, which should be born of a negotiated initiative and not on a revolution that generally leads to bloodshed.

Instead, today we still take refuge in TINA, “there is no alternative” [Editor’s note: TINA is famously Margaret Thatcher’s argument to justify her neo-liberal agenda, deregulating markets, weakening trade unions and dismantling the welfare state].

But who said that? We invented the economy, while universal natural laws are not our invention. We can therefore intervene on our own invention.


This article is part of an editorial collaboration with Impakter Italia.  The  introduction to the article is translated from an Impakter Italia Editorial piece about recent NASA research published on 13 May. The interview, authored by  Stefano Iannaccone was first published in Italian on 8 May 2019.

COVER IMAGE: Impakter Italia. Source: Murray Foubister CC BY-SA 2.0

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