Perspective on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Melt

by William Yeatman on May 14, 2014

Two teams of scientists released papers this week that rendered the same conclusion: Thanks to global warming, the West Antarctic ice sheet will melt sometime between 200 to 900 years from now, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. The ice sheet’s demise would lead to 4 feet of sea level rise.

The New Yorker called the research “terrifying.Mother Jones described it as being a “a holy shit moment for global warming.”

For the purposes of putting this “terrifying,” “holy shit moment” research in perspective, allow me to simply approximate the difference between 200 and 900 years, and assume that the ice sheet completes its unstoppable melt in 500 years. Now, consider what America looked like half a millennium ago:

America, 500 years ago.

America, 500 years ago.

My how times have changed!

I’ve employed this simple thought experiment in order to highlight how yawning a temporal gap is 500 years, in terms of the human experience. Is it really “terrifying” to imagine that citizens of the globe, in five centuries, will have to contend with a world bereft of the West Antarctic ice sheet? The thought experiment also aptly demonstrates the technological advance of human civilization over the last half millennium, and, by extension, our capacity for adaptation.

Even from the perspective of a low-lying nation, I fail to see the terror inherent to a process this long (again, from the anthropogenic—and NOT a geologic—standpoint).  I’d also find comfort in the history of northern of Europe. To this end, see the Wikipedia passage below.

Over the centuries, the Dutch coastline has changed considerably as a result of human intervention and natural disasters. Most notable in terms of land loss was the storm of 1134, which created the archipelago of Zeeland in the south-west.

On 14 December 1287, St. Lucia’s flood affected the Netherlands and Germany killing more than 50,000 people in one of the most destructive floods in recorded history. The St. Elizabeth flood of 1421 and the mismanagement in its aftermath destroyed a newly reclaimed polder, replacing it with the 72-square-kilometre (28 sq mi) Biesbosch tidal floodplains in the south-centre. The huge North Sea flood of early February 1953 caused the collapse of several dikes in the south-west of the Netherlands; more than 1,800 people drowned in the flood. The Dutch government subsequently instituted a large-scale programme, the “Delta Works“, to protect the country against future flooding, which was completed over a period of more than thirty years.

The disasters were somewhat increased in severity through human influence. People had drained relatively high-lying swampland to use it as farmland. This drainage caused the fertile peat to compress and the ground level to drop, whereby they would lower the water level to compensate for the drop in ground level, causing the underlying peat to compress even more. Because of the flooding, farming was difficult, which encouraged foreign trade, the result of which was that the Dutch were involved in world affairs since the early 14th/15th century.The flooding problem remains unsolvable. Also, until the 19th century peat was mined, dried, and used for fuel, further exacerbating the problem.

To guard against floods, a series of defences against the water were contrived. In the first millennium AD, villages and farmhouses were built on man-made hills called terps. Later, these terps were connected by dikes. In the 12th century, local government agencies called “waterschappen” (“water boards”) or “hoogheemraadschappen” (“high home councils”) started to appear, whose job it was to maintain the water level and to protect a region from floods; these agencies continue to exist. As the ground level dropped, the dikes by necessity grew and merged into an integrated system. By the 13th century windmills had come into use to pump water out of areas below sea level. The windmills were later used to drain lakes, creating the famous polders.[citation needed]

In 1932 the Afsluitdijk (“Closure Dike”) was completed, blocking the former Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) from the North Sea and thus creating the IJsselmeer (IJssel Lake). It became part of the larger Zuiderzee Works in which four polders totalling 2,500 square kilometres (965 sq mi) were reclaimed from the sea.

The Netherlands is one of the countries that may suffer most from climate change. Not only is the rising sea a problem, but erratic weather patterns may cause the rivers to overflow.

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