Assistant Professor of Earth, Environment, and Physics Doug Kowalewski’ holds an ice core.

Why the Melting of Antarctica Matters

October 21, 2014
By: WSU News

Uncovering the secret past of the world’s ice sheets is Assistant Professor of Earth, Environment, and Physics Doug Kowalewski’s passion. As a climatologist, Kowalewski conducts fieldwork in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, an ice-free region the size of Rhode Island. As he looks for evidence of ice behavior over millions of years, his eye is on the future. He combines historical advances and retreats of ice with current global warming data to predict the effect on the planet. He will present a lecture about his research during the 7th annual Sustainability Fair and Food Day on October 22-23. Here, he answers our questions about why this matters to everyone.

Why is studying the Antarctica ice sheets important?

This research is vital for understanding the precise climate conditions necessary for an ice-covered Antarctica and how quickly the ice sheets retreated as a result of past climate warming. Ultimately, our aim is to predict the future stability of these ice sheets as temperatures rise due to an increase in greenhouse gases. The key to understanding the future is to understand the past. Studies show that the West Antarctic ice sheet may be extremely sensitive to small changes in ocean temperatures and might have rapidly diminished one million years ago during a warm event in the earth’s past. That event is analogous to the ongoing warming trend due to human activities causing a rise in emissions of greenhouse gases. As a result, we could see ice sheets melting quicker than we originally thought.

How are students involved in your research?

Although we hear a lot about carbon dioxide, Brittnee Bleau has studied the influence of another greenhouse gas, methane, on Antarctica sea ice and Eric Moir’s senior thesis focused on Antarctica ice sheet melting at low elevation due to climate change. Austin Canty will be heading to Antarctica with me during winter break. We will continue to sample the ice, collect meteorological data, and map the past extent of the ice sheets to understand past behavior. For students, traveling to Antarctica is a chance for them to walk where few other humans have ever been before, become immersed in science while camped in freezing conditions for a month, and contribute to our understanding of the continent. It is an absolute blast!

What are the consequences of the ice melting and when could it happen?

I think that by the end of our students’ lives, they will see less ice at the poles. I think sea levels will rise in increments as ice surges into the ocean. One decade we might see a significant rise in sea level and then it might stay the same until the next surge of ice breaks into the oceans. Once this process starts, it is very difficult to reverse. It is similar to the loss of sea ice at the North Pole. As the ocean absorbs sunrays, the ocean warms up, and sea ice melts, leaving more of the ocean exposed to be heated by the sun, which causes additional sea ice to melt. Antarctica ice sheet melt will spin out of control. Once the melting starts, we can’t stop it. Ultimately, maps and coastlines will have to be redrawn.

How could your research lead to the world reducing greenhouse gas emissions so that this melting does not occur?

Right now, it’s like we’re driving at night without headlights. We don’t know what our carbon dioxide (CO2) thresholds should be to prevent catastrophic ice sheet melt and sea level rise. We do know that CO2 levels have risen dramatically since the Industrial Revolution—from 280 to 400 parts per million, primarily from burning of fossil fuels. Since there was a time when West Antarctica was not covered in ice, we are studying environmental conditions and CO2 levels during those periods and synthesizing those data with climate models to pinpoint what carbon dioxide levels will result in catastrophic ice sheet collapse. We hope to provide a CO2 target that policymakers, the public, and the world can shoot for.

Is there enough evidence that we should start reducing emissions now?

Absolutely. We may be getting to the point of no return if we don’t start reducing our emissions. Soon we will be at the stage of people migrating from coastal communities; we have already begun engineering solutions to sea level rise and developing disaster mitigation plans for coastal cities.

Are you hopeful for the future?

I am extremely hopeful. This may be the greatest problem our students face in their lifetime, but the entire world is tackling this problem and changing their energy use habits. We just have to change faster. Students often think one person can’t make a difference, but in fact, our students are leading the change on campus. If students convince WSU to divest from fossil fuels, then I think that would make us the second public university in the U.S. to make this change. I think eventually all institutions of higher education will follow this trend and to think that our students may be leading this global change. What a powerful experience this would be for our students!

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