What if?

Jun 23rd, 2010 | By | Category: International

It is human nature to believe we are masters of our own fate; that there is no situation that we cannot change.

It’s over two years now since the Irish Times carried a report from The Journal of Glaciology on the causes of the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica in 2002.

The demise of the ice shelf has been cited as a significant indicator of climate change, and so it appears to be; but the story is not as simple as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere simply increasing the temperature and melting the ice. The Irish Times piece was also covered at the time by BBC Wales who reported a new study from scientists from the University of Aberystwyth and Colorado University:

Prof Glasser said the dramatic event was "not as simple as we first thought".

He acknowledged that global warming had a major part to play in the collapse, but emphasised that it was only one of a number of contributory factors.

"Because large amounts of meltwater appeared on the ice shelf just before it collapsed, we had always assumed that air temperature increases were to blame," he added.

"But our new study shows that ice-shelf break up is not controlled simply by climate.

"A number of other atmospheric, oceanic and glaciological factors are involved.

"For example, the location and spacing of fractures on the ice shelf such as crevasses and rifts are very important too because they determine how strong or weak the ice shelf is."

Dr Scambos, of the University of Colorado’s national snow and ice data centre, said the ice shelf had probably been in distress for decades before its demise.

"It’s likely that melting from higher ocean temperatures, or even a gradual decline in the ice mass of the peninsula over the centuries, was pushing the Larsen to the brink," he added.

There has been a nagging feeling for some time that there is no Plan B in our response to climate change. If there is a centuries long shift that has been exacerbated by the huge increase in carbon emissions, what measures are proposed if carbon emissions are reduced, but the reduction does not halt the increase? Who is planning for the shift of the population of Bangladesh or the resettlement of the peoples of drought-stricken sub-Saharan Africa?

Today’s Washington Post reports on the collapse of sunspot activity and notes,

These changes are raising questions not just about the sun itself but also about the extent to which the sun’s activity affects our climate. There are those who believe that the solar variability is the major cause of climate change, an idea that would let humans and their greenhouse gases off the hook. Others are equally convinced that the sun plays only a minuscule role in climate change.

What if the first group are right?  What if the sunspots, or lack of them,  are affecting things to a critical degree?  Is there anyone offering a way out of the doomsday scenario where having a clean and green world still fails to save hundreds of millions of lives?

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