The ice is breaking

Global climate change is a reality; the fate of the Earth is being decided on Antarctica

Photo: Ivailo Tsvetkov

The ice is breaking, ladies and gentlemen of the jury! This is the favourite exclamation of fictional character Ostap Bender for situations where something interesting and thrilling is about to happen. And it indeed inevitably happens, courtesy of the unforgettable twists and turns in the novel The Twelve Chairs and its sequel The Little Golden Calf, written by the well-known Russian comedy masters Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov.

The topic at hand, however, is actual and not figurative ice, and what its breaking means. Global climate change is a reality. It is almost certain that we are seeing cyclical changes in the solar activity for which we lack sufficient historical data, and therefore all theories in that regard are of the speculative variety. Naturally, there are ways to assess the changes that have occurred in the Earth's climate over the past several hundred thousand years and even a millennium. However, precise temperature measurements have been done locally only since 1850, and globally since 1880. This is a period of under 170 years, and it would be a sign of mighty arrogance to base our projections on it. But no matter how we read the data, it is clear that the Earth's ice is melting at an accelerating rate.

The global melting of the ice as well as the reverse process - its global return to the Earth's surface - are phenomena that have occurred many times in the geological history of planet Earth.

There is no shortage of opinions, including some completely off the mark, as to what would happen if the ice melts completely or if the Earth once again is covered in ice. Let us look at the melting scenario first. The rather careless view in the Balkans is that there is nothing scary about it. This notion is often supported with the example of what happens to a glass of whiskey filled to the brim and with ice floating in it, when it is left for a while in a room where the temperature is above zero degrees Celsius - the ice will melt but the whiskey will not overflow, even as it will become warmer because of the melted ice. This is because the ice cubes in the glass displace an amount of whiskey equal to their volume. Well, perhaps not exactly the same, as ice is a bit lighter than water, but then again whiskey is lighter than water too.

About 10% of the icebergs in the oceans are above the water, with the remaining 90% submerged. So far, the Balkan logic seems sound and inexorably leads to the conclusion that when the ice melts, the sea level should not change. The latter statement would have been correct if it specifically referred to the “ice in the oceans”. Yes, if the ice in the oceans melts, the sea level will remain unchanged. The trouble is that a very small portion of the Earth's ice is in the form of icebergs. According to scientific research, almost all of the ice on our planet is on land, and if it melts the results will surprise many.

But can we predict what will happen? As it turns out we can, and with good accuracy at that, using simple tools at hand. We already know that if the ice continues to melt the polar bear will be the next big-sized biological species to go extinct. But what else will disappear from the face of the Earth? Open your phone calculator (you can also use pen and paper, especially if you are not of the generation of people who need a computer like they need air). You will also need Google, which offers different but very close numbers as search results. Besides, we do not need data that precise. For example, if London is hit by a flood of biblical proportions, it would not much matter whether the wave was 50m or 60m. In all its states, water on Earth is about 1.37bn cu km and almost all of it is concentrated in the World Ocean, whose average depth is 3.8km. The ice on Earth, in all its varieties, is 25,000 cu km, or 1.8% of the total amount of water. The large majority of it is located in Antarctica. This continent, with a territory of 14m sq km (nearly as big as Russia), is almost entirely covered in an ice layer with an average thickness of 1.6km. This makes 22,000 cu km, which means that almost all the Earth's ice is there. The fate of the planet is being decided on this curious continent. In fairness, we need only two variables to calculate the hypothetical apocalyptic flood - the average depth of the World Ocean of 3,800m and the share of ice in the overall amount of water, which is 0.018. Multiply these two numbers and you get a little under 70m. This is by how much the level of the World Ocean will rise if and when the ice on the land, in Antarctica, melts. At this point in time, there is solid scientific evidence that this has happened several times in history. If only half of the polar ice cap melts, the water level in the World Ocean will rise by “only” 30-40m! To use the Balkan analogy, the glass of whiskey will spill. It would be only 2% of the content but the results will be catastrophic for the residents of the coastal areas. And not only for them.

The gloomiest UN forecasts say there is a danger of the World Ocean rising by about 1m by 2100. One of the consequences, and far from the scariest one, is the disappearance of numerous small oceanic island countries under water. Their population is not that large so we can welcome them on the remaining land. But the increase is unlikely to be just 1m. Google can point us to striking animations illustrating what would happen with the Earth's land if the World Ocean's level rises by 1m, 10m, or even 20m.

Of course, the Earth's geological processes are not only about the rise of the World Ocean's level but also its decrease. By the time when Antarctica sheds its ice and we are allowed to see whether there truly existed a super advanced civilisation there, in between previous global cooling periods, our biological species would have an existential instead of a simply civilisational problem. Unfortunately, our civilisation has developed primarily in coastal areas because of sea communications. This might turn out to be our doom.

In the aftermath of the ice melting and the flood, the reverse process will set in quickly - the return of ice on the land and the retreat of oceans and seas. The problem with glaciation is the speed with which it progresses. The fascinating 12,000-year-old Siberian findings of mammoths with grass blades in their mouths are proof that the animals froze in a matter of seconds. Some fantastical vacuum tunnel to Space probably opened up and caused a temperature drop of perhaps hundreds degrees Celsius.

Just 12,000 years ago the UK was a peninsula, the Mediterranean Sea was a vast valley with rivers crossing it, and the Black Sea was also a valley, perhaps with big lakes in its lowermost part. The Greek islands of Thassos and Samothraki were part of the Rila and Rhodope Mountains and not islands. Back then, the sea level was at least 70-80m lower. This strangely takes us back to those 70m we calculated earlier, just in the opposite direction.

Whether and to what extent these things come to pass is beyond our knowledge. That knows only God, or however else we call the one who created the laws of nature and started the universe's clock. All we are left to do is analyse in analogical terms. Then again, one could always pour oneself a glass of whiskey and observe the ice cubes vanishing with the descent of darkness.

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