Tears in the Cryosphere

If you're melting and you know it clap your hands. Then slap yourself.I probably love ice and snow as much as the next guy, which is to say, not that much. There's something to be said for a warm, sunny day, which normally excludes things that are cold. Ice and snow, for example. So when I read that glaciers, ice sheets, and sea and river ice have been disappearing at the rate of 1.3% every ten years—and that rate is only expected to increase—my response was, "what's your point?" I mean, who needs all that cold, white stuff anyway?

About three weeks ago, the U.N. Environment Programme released their Global Outlook for Ice and Snow report, which is summarized in an Inter Press Service article that basically tells me planet Earth is going dark.

The white -- snow and ice -- reflect sunlight while the dark -- bare ground and open water -- absorb the heat from sunlight, increasing the pace of global warming.

Oh. Well, I guess I wasn't thinking about the reflectivity thing. I was just thinking about how ice is cold, and how I don't like cold stuff.

Two things in the report leap out. One is that there is an enormous amount of ice and snow on the planet. At the peak of the northern hemisphere winter, 15 percent of the Earth's surface is covered by snow and ice. Permanently frozen ground, or permafrost, is found in both polar and alpine areas and covers about 20 percent of Earth's land areas.

This cold region is so big and important scientists call it the cryosphere, and it is crucial to keeping the planet from overheating.

Right. The cryosphere. I knew that. I just wasn't thinking about it. I was thinking more about how ice is cold, and how I don't like cold stuff, except maybe when it's, like, 100° outside and my brain is melting.

Scientists have also learned that melting begets further melting because the melt water gets under the glaciers and lubricates and thus accelerates its ride into the sea.

Right. The cascade effect. Like dominos, sort of. I knew that. I just wasn't thinking about it.

Temperatures in the Arctic have risen faster than anywhere else, producing a clearly visible decline in sea ice of 8.9 percent per decade. Predictions for the first summer when the Arctic Ocean is ice-free have fallen from 2100 to 2050 in recent years, then 2040 and the latest as soon as 2027 . . .

Um . . . that probably isn't a good thing, right? I mean, that's a lot of water, and it has to go somewhere. Twenty years was already kind of creepy, and now you're telling me that's probably optimistic?

On second thought, maybe ice isn't such a bad thing after all, especially since I don't happen to live on a houseboat.


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