One of the most poignant climate moments of 2019 was a funeral for ice: an August ceremony in Iceland for the country’s Okjökull glacier. As can be seen in these NASA satellite images, the glacier declined dramatically between 1986 and 2019:
Mourners remembered the once-large patch of ice with a plaque.
“In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path,” the plaque reads. “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you will know if we did it.”
The loss of Okjökull (officially stripped of its glacier status in 2014) was one of many deeply troubling milestones this decade in the world’s frozen regions, known collectively as the cryosphere. The Arctic in particular is warming twice as fast as the global average and experienced many historic heat waves. The warming, in turn, is causing an unprecedented amount of melt in the world’s ice.
The ice sheets on land have critical effects on seawater levels around the world. If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, it would raise global sea levels by 20 feet. If all the ice in Antarctica melted, it would raise sea levels by 190 feet.
That’s just for ice on land. The melt of once-frozen waters is threatening vulnerable species, changing circulation patterns in the ocean, and fueling feedback loops that could cause even more ice to melt.
In this post, we’ll walk through some of the key markers of climate change in the polar regions this decade with visuals, as well as some of the key insights we gained. (We’ve omitted Greenland’s ice sheet only because there aren’t many good images available.) We learned that ice is declining at both poles at an accelerating rate the world hasn’t seen in centuries. We can now see these dramatic changes from space. And we have a much better grasp on what we’ll lose if we don’t slow the emissions destabilizing the global climate.
There are two main categories of ice in the cryosphere. One is the ice that forms on land from precipitation: Two-thirds of the planet’s freshwater is frozen in these ice caps, sheets, and glaciers. The other is the ice that forms from freezing the ocean, known as sea ice.
The extent of sea ice tends to ebb and flow with the seasons, but over the past decade, both the highs and lows have gotten lower.
“If you look at just the last decade, 2010 to 2019, eight out of those 10 years are among the lowest 10,” said Walt Meier, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center.
You can see that in this graph comparing the extent of Arctic sea ice over the course of a year. It grows in the winter and shrinks in the summer, but in recent years, there’s less of the former and more of the latter.
The record low was in 2012, but this year isn’t much farther behind. “It’s kind of reinforcing that we’re heading on a downward trend,” Meier said.
But the picture is more bleak when we zoom out to a longer time scale: We are currently in the midst of the fastest decline of Arctic sea ice in 1,500 years.
And you can see how this has played out in recent decades in this time lapse animation of ice at the North Pole:
But Meier notes that it’s not just the extent of sea ice that’s changing; the thickness is shrinking as well. It’s a key factor in how much ice survives the summer and how quickly it can regrow in the winter, and we’ve only recently gained a good handle on this with new satellite instruments that can track thickness over time. “The thickness is decreasing as rapidly or more rapidly than the extent,” he said.
The planet’s South Pole is one of its coldest regions, and it’s warming up as well, prompting the rate of ice melt to accelerate. In the past decade, the rate of ice melt in Antarctica tripled compared to 2007. This is on pace to cause six inches of sea level rise by 2100.
You can see some of these dramatic changes playing out in sections of Antarctica, like the Pine Island Glacier. Here is an animation showing the retreat of the glacier since 2000.
The trends in ice in Antarctica are a bit more complicated. There are sections of the Antarctic ice sheet where ice is growing in depth, and others where it is declining, as can be seen in this NASA visual looking at the last 25 years:
Currently, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the larger, thicker, cooler, more stable sheet in Antarctica, is unlikely to see major changes in the coming years. But the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is showing signs of an accelerating rate of melt, driven in part by climate change.
Greenhouse gas emissions, meanwhile, climbed ever higher this decade. In 2010, carbon dioxide concentrations peaked at 394 parts per million (ppm), according to observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory. This year, the observatory reported a record high of 414.8 ppm, a concentration not seen on Earth for millions of years.
“At our current rates of increasing emissions, it’s pretty inevitable we’re going to have ice-free summer conditions at some point in the future, probably within the next, three decades,” Meier said. “It’s a matter of ‘when,’ not ‘if’ anymore.”
However, there is uncertainty in how many summers we’ll see without ice in the Arctic, and a key source of that uncertainty is what we’ll do about our greenhouse gas emissions.
The Paris climate agreement set out to limit warming this century to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, with a more ambitious target of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius. Hitting the latter target would require halving global emissions by as soon as 2030, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and then net reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere thereafter.
It’s a tall order, but reaching the more-ambitious goal would mean more ice would survive the summer. “In 2 degrees [Celsius] of warming, which is the target set in Paris, it’s likely that we’ll have ice-free summers pretty regularly under those conditions,” Meier said. “But if we hold things to 1.5 degrees [Celsius], which is kind of the ambitious goal, I’m not sure how realistic that is, we’ll likely keep a fair amount of ice around the summer.”
So we’ll likely lose even more from the coldest parts of the world in the coming decade. But the actions we all take will shape just how much is lost.
First Private Crew Will Visit Space Station. The Price Tag: $55 Million Each – Prairie Public Broadcasting
A crew of private astronauts will pay around $55 million each to spend about eight days at the International Space Station next January in what would be a new step for joint private-public space missions. Axiom Space, a Houston company, says the trip will be led by former NASA astronaut and space station commander Michael López-Alegría.
The proposed Ax-1 mission will use a SpaceX rocket to put three paying customers — American Larry Connor, Canadian Mark Pathy and Israeli Eytan Stibbe – into low-Earth orbit on the space station. All of the trio are wealthy entrepreneurs and investors. The group will be under the command of López-Alegría, who is now an executive at Axiom.
It would be the first time an entirely private mission sends astronauts to the International Space Station. Russia sold the first ride to the station to a private citizen, American businessman Dennis Tito, in 2001.
All of the private astronauts for the upcoming mission are far older than the average NASA astronaut’s age of 34. The space agency does not have age restrictions for astronaut candidates, who generally range from 26 to 46 years old. At 70, Connor is surpassed in age only by John Glenn, who flew on the space shuttle when he was 77.
Under NASA’s rules for private astronaut missions, Axiom must ensure its astronauts meet the space agency’s medical standards. They must also undergo training and certification procedures required for crew members of the International Space Station.
While the paying customers represent a new era of space tourism, they will also perform research as the space station whizzes over the Earth.
Connor will work with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic on research projects, Axiom says, while Pathy will collaborate with the Canadian Space Agency and the Montreal Children’s Hospital. Stibbe plans to do experiments for Israeli researchers, working with the Ramon Foundation and Israel’s space agency.
“We sought to put together a crew for this historic mission that had demonstrated a lifelong commitment to improving the lives of the people on Earth, and I’m glad to say we’ve done that with this group,” Axiom Space President and CEO Michael Suffredini said as the company announced the crew.
Similar missions are planned for the future, Suffredini said. Axiom hopes to arrange up to two trips per year — and the company also wants to build its own privately funded space station. Under that plan, its modules would be attached to the space station as soon as 2024. And when the space station is retired, the Axiom modules would break off to continue in orbit on their own.
NASA announced its plans to open the International Space Station to commercial activities in June 2019, saying it wants businesses to use innovation and ingenuity to speed up development of “a thriving commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.”
The space agency has a plan to recoup the steep costs of a private citizen visiting the space station. Its pricing policy lists expenses such as a daily fee of $11,250 per person for “regenerative life support and toilet” and $22,500 per person for crew supplies such as food and air. The price sheet also includes a data plan, priced at $50 per gigabyte.
Canadian Space Agency using satellite data to track endangered right whales – CBC.ca
The Canadian Space Agency is harnessing satellite technology to monitor and protect endangered North Atlantic right whales in the country’s waters.
The agency said Tuesday it will lead a $5.3-million project funded by the federal government called smartWhales, which will use satellites to detect the presence of right whales and to predict the animals’ movements.
Canada is giving a total of $5.3 million over three years to five companies for a series of projects to help protect the endangered species.
One of the projects will involve a system that can rapidly provide location data and detect if the whales are approaching a fishing vessel.
Fisheries Minister Bernadette Jordan says collecting satellite data about the movement of the whales is key to preventing collisions between whales and vessels and to spot cases where the animals are caught in fishing gear — two of the leading causes of right whale deaths.
In late October last year, the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium released its annual report card, estimating that only 356 right whales were alive at the end of 2019.
Spacewalking astronauts improve station's European lab | TheSpec.com – TheSpec.com
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Spacewalking astronauts installed a high-speed data link outside the International Space Station’s European lab on Wednesday and tackled other improvements.
NASA’s Mike Hopkins and Victor Glover floated out early and headed straight to Columbus, one of the three high-tech labs at the orbiting outpost.
“That’s a beautiful view,” Hopkins observed as the station soared 260 miles (420 kilometres) above Kazakhstan.
The astronauts hauled with them a fancy new antenna for Columbus that will provide faster communication with European researchers via satellites and ground stations. Although they had trouble driving in some of the bolts to attach the boxy antenna, the size of a small refrigerator, it appeared to be secure and Mission Control declared success.
Danish astronaut Andreas Morgensen guided the spacewalkers from Mission Control in Houston, where controllers wore masks and were seated apart because of the pandemic.
The spacewalkers also needed to hook up power and data cables for an experiment platform for science research outside the European lab that’s been awaiting activation for almost a year.
SpaceX delivered the platform named Bartolomeo to the space station last spring. The shelf was installed with the station’s robot arm, but had to wait until Wednesday’s spacewalk to get hooked up and activated.
Airbus, which built and runs Bartolomeo, is selling space on the platform for private research projects. It’s Europe’s first commercial venture outside the station.
Hopkins and Glover will perform a second spacewalk on Monday to complete battery upgrades to the station’s solar power grid. The latest spacewalk was the third for Hopkins and first for Glover.
They are part of SpaceX’s second astronaut flight that launched in November. Their docked Dragon capsule was visible on NASA TV during the spacewalk.
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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