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The Ice Melt Equation: An Ultimate Geopolitical Calculus

Ice_and_Clouds_in_the_Bering_StraitThis is a cross-post from Relief Analysis Wire

“Do ice sheets have a linear or exponential melt rate?”

This question may not be echoed frequently around the command centers of NATO, streets of Damascus, or ministries of Beijing. But if researchers James Hansen and Makiko Sato are correct in their inkling, then geopolitics, global security, and humanitarian operations just got extremely problematic in the coming decades.

In newly-published analysis, Hansen and Sato explore the melt rates of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets with a perspective that, in our recent paleoclimate history, melt didn’t necessarily happen with a smooth, linear curve. Indeed, there is evidence that Earth’s climate had sensitive tipping points, with potential “run away feedback loops” throughout its recent history of ice ages and interglacials.

And Hansen and Sato posit that human-prompted climate changes are exponentially forcing this equation in a short period of time. The possibility? Rapid breakdown of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets much faster than the IPCC predicts, as melt rates potentially double over short intervals of time. By 2090, meters of sea level rise could be entirely possible globally, and some northern climates could then even flip into a nasty deep freeze negative feedback loop accompanied by Sandy-esque super storms  This is tough to fathom even by our IPCC conditioned worldview, and certainly it seems that global security policies are ill equipped for such a violent scenario.

It’s easy to understand why it is difficult to conceive of Hansen and Sato’s possibility. Even in the entire geopolitical history of human civilization, there is no precedent for so many small island developing states being swallowed by the oceans, for millions of potential climate refugees in South Asia, and for every nation on the planet with an ocean coastline having to quickly deal with displacement, economic loss, and parts of their nations disappearing from the map.

Yet human civilization is just a blink of an eye of geologic time, and just a few blinks earlier, our climate may well have gone through rapid and violent transitions from one mode to another.

If Hansen and Makiko’s analysis is validated, then we can also ascribe another curve to their analysis. The more rapid the doubling rate of ice melt, the more rapid the coping ability of our global humanitarian community and regional and national security powers decays.

Indeed, ice melt rate may be one of the most important geopolitical equations we have today.


2 Comments

  1. Nicholas Burk - Melting Glacier Analytics says:

    Thank you, Frank. Just saw the post, much appreciated!

    Best, Nick On Jan 14, 2013 10:55 AM, “The Center for Climate & Security” wrote:

    > ** > Caitlin Werrell and Francesco Femia posted: “This is a cross-post from > Relief Analysis Wire “Do ice sheets have a linear or exponential melt > rate?” This question may not be echoed frequently around the command > centers of NATO, streets of Damascus, or ministries of Beijing. But if > researchers J”

  2. Martin S Indyk, AIPAC and I « elcidharth says:

    […] scientists have suggested that the melting of polar ice has not previously proceeded in a smooth and linear process, but […]

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