Before Our Eyes: Evidence of the changing Earth we can see

On this page, I’m gathering together images from around the world that show how Global Climate Change is occurring right Before Our Eyes.

Every image you see on this page has been linked by scientists directly to human-caused global warming.

Quick links to page contents
Disappearing Arctic sea ice (1984-2016)
Glacier National Park, Montana (1850-present)
Shishmaref: A canary in our coal mine
The Larsen B ice shelf collapse (2002)
The Larsen C ice shelf
The Great Barrier Reef
A mossy shore
The melting glaciers in time lapse
Collapse! Watch the largest glacier collapse ever caught on film

Disappearing Arctic sea ice (1984-2016)

Video credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Click the image above to see a <3 minute time lapse video, narrated by cryogenic scientist Dr. Walt Meier of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, showing dramatic changes in the Arctic sea ice as captured by NASA satellite imagery from 1984 to 2016. Read more.

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Glacier National Park, Montana (1850-present)

Image credit: U.S. Geological Survey. Photos of Boulder Glacier Ice Cave, Glacier National Park, Montana, 1932 (left) and 1988 (right).

Glacier National Park, Montana, established in 1910, was named for the estimated 150 alpine glaciers that covered 21.6 square kilometers in the park around 1850. In 1979, the Earth was an average 0.45 degrees Celsius warmer and the glaciers covered 7.4 square kilometers. By 2010, there were only 25 glaciers left. A recent computer model predicts all glaciers in the park will vanish by 2030. Read more.

What shall we call Glacier National Park, when it contains no glaciers?

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Shishmaref: A Canary in Our Coal Mine

On August 16, 2016, the registered voters of Shishmaref, AK voted 89-78 to move their town.

Shishmaref, AK is a town of about 650 people located on an Alaskan barrier island 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Archaeological evidence shows people have been living there since at least the 1600’s. Elder residents of Shishmaref recall playing sports on the wide, sandy beaches that surrounded the town in summer:

Image credit: The Huffington Post, 2014. Historical photos from the Alaska State Library Historical Collections show wide, sandy beaches surrounding Shishmaref.

Lately, not so much.

Image credit: The New York Times, 2016. An abandoned house at the west end of Shishmaref that slid off the edge of the island in a 2005 storm.

Since the 1950’s, the town has been rapidly disappearing into the encroaching Arctic Ocean as it faces a “triple threat” of Global Climate Change effects:

  • The surrounding sea ice barrier melts earlier in the spring and freezes later in the fall than it used to, leaving the island vulnerable to erosion by violent early winter and spring storms.
  • Arctic sea ice decline, averaging about 3% per year, has opened up vast stretches of the Arctic Ocean that used to be frozen, enabling the growth of large waves in the Arctic that batter the coastline.
  • The permafrost on which the town is built has been melting, transforming from a hard, rock-like substance into a mushy sand that is easily eroded.

This is not the first time the residents of Shishmaref have voted to move their town; similar votes passed in 1973 and 2002. The earlier efforts involved substantial study but were unsuccessful, not least of all because of the cost. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study in 2004 estimated it would cost $179 million to move the town to the Alaska mainland. At about $275,000 per resident, this seems like a reasonable cost if you consider the re-construction of housing for each resident as well as all the public services (schools, medical, utilities, roads, etc.) they currently have. But their requests for state and federal funds for a relocation have, so far, been unsuccessful. Instead, the Army Corps of Engineers helped the residents of Shishmaref build a seawall of boulders, on the shore of their island, to buy them about 15 years to think.

You can read more facts and history about Shishmaref if you want (here, here, here, herehere, and here, for example). Or, you can watch the 5-minute video at the end of this post. Before I lose your attention, I’d like to move on to a couple important questions brought up by Shishmaref. Because Shishmaref is a canary in our coal mine (double meaning intended.) Temperatures in Alaska have increased by 3.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 50 years, faster than the rest of the U.S. Over 30 other Alaskan towns face “imminent threat of destruction.” So if you live near a coast, the plight of Shishmaref, and towns like it, is a foreshadowing one.

The questions of adaptability and cost

Many think we can “simply adapt” to Global Climate Change. Shishmaref has a population of 650 and has been seeking funds to relocate since the 1970s. If we consider this tiny town as a test case for adaptability, the results have not been encouraging. With nearly 50 years of effort, the citizens of Shishmaref have managed to attract funding to build a seawall of boulders that everyone recognizes as only a temporary measure. It’s tempting to think these are distant people who have chosen to live in a “stupid place.” This is demonstrably not the case. People have been living in Shishmaref for 500 years, with no problems until around 1950. They are U.S citizens, residents of the state of Alaska. As such, their challenges have been studied by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The result, so far, has been a boulder seawall as a temporary measure.

Now consider, for example, the New Orleans metropolitan area, a population of 1.3 million people living 1-2 feet below the current sea level. What will be the cost of protecting that population from future rising sea levels? Who will pay for it? And what about all the other coastal cities of the U.S.? According to a U.S. Geological Survey report, 50% of the U.S. coast is at a “high” or “very high” risk of impacts due to sea level rise. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 16.4 million Americans live in the coastal flood plain (this figure is referenced here, although it has disappeared from the NOAA website). Think about this, when you hear any politician talk about the costs of switching to sustainable energy sources. Or, the purported economic advantages (jobs) associated with a new oil pipeline. Which is more expensive? Solar panels now, or seawalls and relocations later?

The question of morality

Shishmaref is emblematic of how we are engaged in a global tragedy of the commons. The folks of Shishmaref have contributed insignificantly to Global Climate Change. The median family income is less than $30,000 and most families there feed themselves based on subsistence hunting, fishing, and berry-picking, as they have for centuries. Gasoline arrives there by barge once a year in the summer, costs upwards of $6 a gallon, and is rationed by the populace when it runs out before the next annual shipment. When was the last time your hometown rationed gasoline? Yet, they are bearing the direct costs of climate change inflicted by the rest of us. Many observers think they will not, ultimately, be successful in relocating their town. Rather, they will simply disperse. They will eat the financial loss of their homes and lose their shared culture developed over centuries of living in that place. Even their departure will be tough; the only way out is by boat or plane, and the flight to Nome costs $400.

And this is how Global Climate Change will initially be paid for, if we don’t stop it. It will be paid for, at the start, by the poorest and most vulnerable people. The people who can’t easily move, or fund seawalls. So when we think about the costs of moving to more sustainable energy sources, we need to understand there are substantial moral considerations. Can we pay a little bit more per mile to drive our cars, for a time? Or should we rather consign other folks to a future of economic oblivion? (and later, our own children and grandchildren?)

Video credit: Tzu Chi USA 360 (click image to view). 5-minute video documents the ongoing consumption of Shishmaref, Alaska by a warming Arctic Ocean.

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The Larsen B ice shelf collapse (2002)

Image credit: NASA. Photographs of the Antarctic Larsen B Ice Shelf as captured from January 31 to April 13, 2002 by NASA’s Terra satellite.

From January 31 to March, 2002, scientists in airplanes, on research ships, and in front of NASA satellite imaging screens watched in amazement as the Antarctic Larsen B Ice Shelf, a 1,255 square mile mass of ice larger than the state of Rhode Island, collapsed completely in a period of just 35 days.

Image credit: Robert A. Rohde, Wikipedia.

Ice shelves are large sheets of floating ice that form where continental glaciers slowly drain into the ocean. Research published in the journal Nature shows the Larsen B Ice Shelf has been stable for at least 10,000 years, with chunks breaking off at roughly the same rate they were replenished by the draining of the contributing glaciers. (For reference, the earliest human civilizations – Mesopotamia and so on – appeared about 6,000 years ago.) This balance of ice loss and replenishment, which had persisted for at least about twice the entire duration of human civilization, ended abruptly in 2002.

A 2014 paper published in the journal Science reported studies of the Larsen B grounding zone (the zone where the floating ice shelf had been connected to the coastal bedrock) showing it had been stable before the collapse. This indicates the collapse was driven by unusually high surface temperatures, exceeding the highest surface temperatures that have occurred for at least the past 10,000 years. Ponds of melt water formed on the surface of the ice shelf (you can see them in the first satellite image above). Those filled small cracks on the surface of the shelf, and the weight of the water then drove the cracks through the full thickness of the shelf. Read more here.

Like the Arctic in the Northern Hemisphere, Antarctica has undergone a surface temperature rise faster than the global average, about 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade, since at least the late 1940’s. The 2002 event was a dramatic illustration that large, previously stable ice shelves can be highly sensitive to surface temperature changes.

Since ice shelves are already floating on the ocean, the collapse of one does not itself contribute very significantly to sea level rise. However, ice shelves slow down the flow of continental glaciers into the sea, and this ice contributes directly to sea level rise. In fact, a detailed 2004 study of five glaciers previously buttressed by the Larsen B Ice Shelf showed they had sped up by factors between 2 and 8 by the end of 2003, contributing an additional 6.5 cubic miles per year of water to the oceans. Potential sea level rise from a complete melting of this region of Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula, is estimated at 0.46 meters. Potential sea level rise from a combined melting of the Greenland and Western Antarctic ice sheets similar to melting that occurred in the distant past would cause a sea level rise of 10 meters, flooding about 25% of the current U.S. population. To read more, see this U.S. Geological Survey fact sheet.

As for the Larsen B Ice Shelf, a 2015 NASA study indicates the surviving portion will disintegrate within a few years (see video below).

Video credit: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Click image to watch a short 2015 video, narrated by NASA JPL team leader Ala Khazendar, about the remnant of the Larsen B Ice Shelf.

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The Larsen C ice shelf

On Thursday, June 1, 2017, President Trump was strolling out to the Rose Garden podium, following the U.S. Marine Band’s rendition of “Summertime” (“Summertime” – seriously? – you couldn’t make this stuff up), to explain to us how the U.S. will join the other two global technical superpowers, Nicaragua and Syria, in uniquely having this climate and energy thing all figured out. Meanwhile, this was happening a few thousand miles away:

Image credits: NASA. A crack in the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf as imaged in November, 2016.

Showing both events on a split screen would’ve made for some good TV.

The photos above, of a crack in the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf, were taken last November. But throughout last week, scientists watched as the greater than 120-mile long crack advanced 11 miles, leaving the crack tip only 8 miles from the edge of the ice shelf. This chunk of the ice shelf is expected to break off soon, freeing an iceberg roughly the size of the state of Delaware.

Image credit: CNN. Progress of the crack in the Antarctic Larsen C ice shelf.

The floating ice shelves slow down the draining of land-based glaciers into the ocean, a draining process which directly causes sea-level rise. I posted previously about the 2002 collapse of a large section of the nearby Larsen B ice shelf that had previously been stable for at least 10,000 years. Following the collapse, the land-based glaciers previously buttressed by Larsen B began draining an additional 6.5 cubic miles per year of water into the ocean. 15 years later, those glaciers are still flowing at an accelerated rate.

As I explained in my previous post, these ice shelf collapses in Antarctica are attributed directly to human-caused global warming. They are getting bigger and bigger. Along with thermal expansion of the oceans as they warm, melting polar ice is among the climate change driven processes that are actively destroying coastal communities in Alaska. These processes threaten to flood Manhattan, New Orleans, and Miami if the industrial nations of the world fail to work together to decarbonize our energy sources.

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The Great Barrier Reef

CNN reports in April, 2017 about the ongoing bleaching and death of two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef due to elevated ocean temperatures that have been directly linked to global warming. (Watch short video; watch more detailed CNN report including interviews with scientists studying the changing reef.)

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A mossy shore

Image credit: Matt Amesbury as reported by CNN and The Washington Post. Photo altered by me.

A ruggedly verdant scene. A lonely, mossy, wind-swept shore battered by white caps. Where in the world do you think it is? A craggy coastline of Ireland, perhaps?

Confession time: I (inexpertly) altered the photograph above. Here’s the original one:

Image credit: Matt Amesbury. Original photograph as reported by CNN and The Washington Post.

Those aren’t white caps. They’re icebergs.

Now, where do you think we are?

The western peninsula of Antarctica. Seem unnatural? If you think so, you’re right. At least, it’s unnatural compared with a similar photo that might have been taken 50 years ago or before that, which would have shown “a monochrome shot of ice.” That’s according to Dominic Hodgson, co-author of a new study of “moss cores” published in the scientific journal Current Biology.

Warming temperatures and dwindling ice, resulting from global climate change, are causing a “greening” of the western peninsula of Antarctica, where the study of a 150-year record of “moss cores” from 3 separate areas of the peninsula shows moss coverage has increased by “4 or 5 times” over the past 50 years. This creates risks of unpredictable ecological changes in Antarctica, for example, due to the growth of invasive plant species that could potentially spread there.

The greening of Antarctica parallels similar findings in the warming Arctic, where it may actually be occurring faster.

Read more: CNN, The Washington Post, Current Biology

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The melting glaciers in time lapse

In 2007, photographer James Balog founded the Extreme Ice Survey (EIS), the most comprehensive ground-based photographic study of the Earth’s glaciers ever undertaken. Pioneering new automated time lapse technology, James and a team of scientists, videographers, and extreme weather expedition experts have setup 43 cameras to record the changes occurring in 24 glaciers in Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Austria, and the Rocky Mountains. Over the past decade, this has resulted in stunning time lapse recordings of the changing glaciers (spoiler alert, they are melting). Click each of the images below to see, in about a minute, the effects of 7-8 years of climate change on one of the world’s largest glaciers.

Along with expansion of the oceans as they heat up, the melting of the large, land-based glaciers in these videos directly contributes to sea-level rise. A recent scientific study of the melting of Antarctic land-based glaciers, published in the prestigious and extensively peer-reviewed journal, Nature, makes the following conclusion:

“Antarctica has the potential to contribute more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100 and more than 15 metres by 2500, if emissions continue unabated. In this case atmospheric warming will soon become the dominant driver of ice loss, but prolonged ocean warming will delay its recovery for thousands of years.”

The second of the above sentences refers to modeling results that quantified the expected effects of rising atmospheric temperature on the ocean temperature. The ocean heats up more slowly than the atmosphere. This means that atmospheric temperature changes we are “locking in” now will result in delayed warming of the oceans that will take millennia to reverse, even if we were to arrest the heating of the atmosphere now. This “sluggishness” of many of the Earth’s climate responses, very well understood by scientists, is important information for all of us to understand. As our leaders dither around with ignorant and disingenuous arguments about whether climate change is even happening (it is), balancing needs of the environment against short-term jobs in the fossil fuel industry (or, as evidence suggests is really the case, short-term profits for highly influential fossil fuel executives), we must understand that the decisions we are making right now, every day, are profoundly affecting the challenges of future generations, including the kids among us right now.

As you watch the videos below, imagine our children, and their children, and their children’s children, either erecting sea walls that will grow to 15 meter (49-foot!!) heights or abandoning our favorite coastal cities. Then, balance that against the potential for short-term job losses in the fossil fuel industry (keeping in mind that new jobs would presumably be created by the aggressive development of renewable energy). Destruction of our coastal cities and job losses in the fossil fuel industry are both economic harms, there is no doubt. Which is worse?

Video credit: EIS. Time lapse footage of the Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska, 2007-2015. EIS description: “The Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska, has experienced significant retreat and deflation in the recent past. Once flowing proudly across Mendenhall Lake, the glacier now takes a small piece of lake front real-estate far from where our cameras were originally installed, and even further from the view of the thousands of visitors who travel to see the glacier each summer.”

 

Video credit: EIS. Time lapse footage of the Columbia Glacier, Alaska, 2007-2015. EIS description: “Flowing from the heart of the Chugach Mountains in South-Central Alaska, the Columbia Glacier is one of the fastest changing glaciers in North America. In the last 30 years the glacier has deflated well over one thousand feet and has retreated about ten miles. This loss contributes to approximately one percent of total sea level rise (accounting for both thermal expansion and glacier mass melt).”

 

Video credit: EIS. Time lapse footage of the Sólheimajökull Glacier, Iceland, 2007-2015. EIS description: “The Sólheimajökull Glacier is a large tongue of ice that flows southward off of the Mýrdalsjökull Ice Cap in Southern Iceland. The glacier is retreating due to a combination of stream erosion and ice melt. The cracks or “crevasses” that can be seen forming parallel to the flow of the glacier indicate that it is spreading out and thinning as it continues to flow forward.”

 

Video credit: EIS. Ilulissat Glacier, Greenland, 2007-2014. EIS description: “The Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland is one of the fastest flowing glaciers in the World and contributes more ice to the World Ocean than any other glacier in the Northern Hemisphere. On May 28, 2008, Adam LeWinter and Director Jeff Orlowski filmed a historic breakup at the Illulissat Glacier. The event lasted for 75 minutes during which the three mile wide terminus of the glacier retreated a full mile. This rare footage has gone on record as the largest glacier calving event ever captured on film, by the 2016 Guinness Book of World Records.”

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Collapse! Watch the largest glacier collapse ever caught on film

Click below to watch a 5-minute video of the largest glacier collapse ever caught on film, according to the 2016 Guiness Book of World Records.

On May 28, 2008, while setting up to capture time-lapse footage of the Ilulissat Glacier (also known as the Jakobshavn Glacier) in western Greenland, documentary filmmakers Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski happened to be in the right place, at the right time, to capture on film a 75-minute calving event during which a chunk of ice roughly the size of Manhattan broke off the glacier and collapsed into the ocean, causing a virtually instantaneous one-mile retreat of this Greenland glacier.

The filmmakers’ footage of glacier changes in the Arctic, due to global warming, was ultimately part of a documentary film, Chasing Ice, which won an Emmy in 2014. (You can stream it on Netflix.)

In 2015, the same glacier lost another 5 square mile chunk of ice during a 2-day period in August.  Its current melting rate is roughly three times its melting rate in the 1990’s, according to a scientific study published in 2014. The Greenland ice sheet is dumping about 300 gigatons of ice into the ocean each year, according to NASA, making it the current largest source of sea-level rise from melting ice.

A complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet would raise global sea-level by about 20 feet, with dramatic consequences for coastal communities.

Video credit: Chasing Ice. 5-minute video of the largest ice sheet collapse ever caught on film.

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