Monday, December 18, 2017

I Don't Need TIME Magazine To Tell Me The Alps Are Melting

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Me - negotiating a climb near Grindelwald, Switzerland - in August, 1978. You won't see any snow or ice in that area now - at that time of year.

The four-page article appearing recently in TIME was headed 'The Big Melt: Climate Change In The Alps (December 11, p. 53) and ought to have gotten the attention of anyone who's visited the area  especially in the past and compared it to what one sees now. The main takeaway? Very troubling.  In July, 1978, Janice and I hiked 15 kilometers at high altitude in the Grindelwald area, which included negotiating icy rocks and deep snow.  When we returned to the region in  2014. on visiting Jungfraujoch, the scene was virtually unrecognizable to what we'd beheld in 1978.

Image result for brane space, Switzerland
The most appalling and noteworthy difference? The lines of rope  tied to posts in the foreground,  in the photo taken by Janice in Sept., 2014.  None of those ropes existed when we last came in August, 1978. Unlike when we were there in 1978, the powers-that-be had roped off the entire plateau area and posted signs to warn visitors not to jump over the ropes to go beyond. With no such rope boundaries in '78,  we managed to hike far beyond those confines to the top of a steep slope nearly parallel with the Sphinx Observatory (far right). This time we observed chunks of snow and ice falling and suspected a primary reason was that global warming had rendered the snow-packed slopes more treacherous, and the risk of avalanche much greater. We'd have had to be fools to attempt what we did 36 years earlier, and in JULY at that time.

To put the height of Jungfraujoch into perspective one can refer to this Swiss map of the region which also includes the Eiger:
Image result for brane space, Switzerland
A view of one of the receding glaciers - seen from our train en route up to Jungfrau is seen below:
Image result for brane space, Switzerland
On our previous train trip in 1978 (imaged in 35 mm slides, which have faded out over time) the glacier tip extended all the way to the edge of the slope on the lower right.

According to the TIME article:

"The Alpine mountain range first rose an estimated 44 million years ago, when the great African plate began creeping northward, breaking and upthrusting the European plate. The newborn peaks did not stop growing until 9 million years ago, and it would be millions more years before the glaciers and snow that are their signature feature would be in place.

Humans have needed barely a century to make a mess of it all. Green and brown, it appears, are the new white across the southern European peaks as climate change, which historically has done its most noticeable damage closer to sea level, now reaches higher."

An image from the article showing the glaring extent of climate change is shown below (ibid., p. 54):

The caption for the image on the page states: "Here is a manufactured trail that leads to a ski lodge on a denuded mountain."  In other words, the "snow" is actually artificial - it had to be moved in,  that's how bad things have gotten.

The piece adds that "from 1960 to 2017, the Alpine snow season shortened by 38 days - starting an average of 12 days later and ending 26 days earlier than normal. "

The most serious aspect? Climate scientists now predict the melt to reach 10,000 feet altitude by the end of the century.   This means that the scene that captured us below,  at an altitude of about 10, 000 ft. near Engelberg in August, 1985:
Image result for brane space, Engelberg

Would be totally barren of ice and snow by then. I kidded Janice that, fortunately, we wouldn't be around to see it.

How bad is it really? As the TIME authors put it (ibid.): "Imagine the Caribbean culture and economy without beaches and water; that's the Alpine culture and economy without snow."

At the same time all this is unfolding in the Alps, we've learned about how dramatic climate change has accelerated temperatures in Barrow, Alaska, focusing on the image below showing the NOAA Baseline Atmospheric Observatory with the Arctic Ocean in the background:
The NOAA Barrow Baseline Atmospheric Observatory, ...
Note how eerily similar it is the photograph taken of the barren of snow Swiss Alps earlier.

The point? The temperature in Barrow had been warming so fast this year, the data was automatically flagged as unreal and removed from the climate database. It was done by algorithms that were put in place to ensure that only the best data gets included in NOAA’s reports. They’re handy to keep the data sets clean, but this kind of quality-control algorithm is only good in “average” situations with no outliers.  

In other words, human algorithms for monitoring temperature changes in certain locations are already out of date since they cannot encompass actual data outliers - such as Barrow. In the 17 years since 2000, the average October temperature in Barrow has climbed 7.8 degrees. The November temperature is up 6.9 degrees. The December average has warmed 4.7 degrees

The Arctic is warming faster than any other place on Earth, and Barrow is in the thick of it. With less and less sea ice to reflect sunlight, the temperature around the North Pole is spiking upward.  We refer to this has the decreased albedo effect.   The nature of a positive albedo feedback mechanism playing a major role in Greenhouse warming is well explicated by the late Carl Sagan in one of his essays, 'Ambush : The Warming of the World', appearing in his book 'Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Beginning of the Millennium':

"Melting of ice caps (already occurring) results in diminished albedo (reflection of solar radiation back into space), and a darker Earth surface - with more infrared radiation absorbed - reinforcing the tendency while enhancing the melting effect, leading to further darkening of the surface, reduced albedo and more melting."

This mode of positive feedback is what we're faced with in the melting of the Arctic. Just this week, scientists reported that the Arctic had its second-warmest year – behind 2016 – with the lowest sea ice ever recorded. The announcement came at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) , and the report is topped with an alarming headline: “Arctic shows no sign of returning to reliably frozen region of recent past decades.

Changes in the Arctic extend beyond sea ice. Vast expanses of former permafrost have been reduced to mud, and also in the process of warming released methane - perhaps the Greenhouse gas which is most potent.  See e.g.

The other result? Aberrations of the Arctic ecology. Nonnative species of plants, the types that only grow in warmer climates, are spreading into what used to be the tundra. Nowhere is this greening of the Arctic happening faster than the North Slope of Alaska, observable with high-resolution clarity on NOAA satellite imagery. Again, note - this is nothing to be cheered, any more than a three-headed human baby. 

According to the NOAA Report issued, which ought to awaken even the most comatose climate change denier zombies:

“The current observed rate of sea ice decline and warming temperatures are higher than at any other time in the last 1,500 years, and likely longer than that,”

The Arctic and the Alps, two of the "canaries" in the coal mine" warning us of the impending monstrous changes to the planet which will affect our progeny and future generations - assuming there is no runaway Greenhouse effect.

As the TIME article ends:

"The loss of the beauty that was once the Alps is a just price for the damage wrought by humans - and might serve as a sufficient spur for us to avoid doing more damage."

Maybe, but that remains to be seen,  both for the Alps, and the Arctic.

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