In May 2007, roughly a year after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Will Steger was leading a 1,200-mile ice survey expedition across Baffin Island, in northern Canada, when he and his team encountered a tangle of snowmobile tracks in the snow.
“We didn’t know what to make of them—they went ’round and ’round and every which way,” says Steger, 68, a Minnesota-based explorer and a global warming advisor to then-Senator Al Gore in the 1980s. “There was nothing to follow.”
When Steger’s team arrived at the local village, they asked a group of Iglulik elders to explain the tracks. Some tribesmen had taken snowmobiles onto the ice to honor members who had died in previous years, they learned.
“It was an event they did every year, but this time they got badly lost because the melting ice had so dramatically changed the landscape they had known all their lives,” Steger explains. “They got confused, and went around in circles until they gave up and drove back home.”
One hundred eight years, give or take a few months.
That’s the collective amount of time that Steger, Jason Box, 40, a glaciologist at Ohio State University’s Byrd Climate Research Center, and Bill Fraser, 62, a penguin ecologist, have dedicated to studying and exploring the planet’s ice.
All three experts feel strongly that climate change is profoundly altering the ice that houses the majority of the planet’s fresh water supply.
Simply put, we’re melting the world’s ice-covered regions. And this extreme thaw is a problem for two big reasons. One, the excess water will cause sea levels to rise, thereby threatening countless coastal communities. And two, increasing amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere will effectively prime the pump for more and more extreme weather events.
“The effects of climate change are not confined to the poles,” says Steger. “Here in the U.S., climate change means more intense hurricanes, longer droughts, and other potentially catastrophic changes to our weather in the years ahead.”
Just how under siege is the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic?
In 2012, the Arctic ice cap shrank to a record low, with only 24 percent of the Arctic Ocean covered by ice, a 50 percent drop from 1979, when satellite observation began. And, since 1983, the Arctic has warmed more than any other place on the planet.
Last summer, Greenland experienced melting across 90 percent of its surface. During one particular four-day period in July 2012, the polar ice melted at a faster rate than satellite data had ever recorded.
Antarctica is home to 90 percent of the planet's ice. Along the continent's 900-mile-long Peninsula air temperatures have risen by five to nine degrees in the past 50 years, among the greatest warming on the planet, and the melting polar ice along its edges is disappearing faster than anyone could have predicted.
We’re literally watching the Earth’s natural coolant melt away.
In the seven years since the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Box says that Earth’s melting polar ice has been speaking loudly and clearly to scientists—and the message is terrifying.
“If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we’re under-predicting the sensitivity of the cryosphere,” he says. “The ice is telling us that abrupt climate change is well underway. You’ll hear people say we’re going into uncharted territory, but that’s not correct. We are already in unchartered territory.”
Box is particularly concerned about Greenland.
Since 1994, he has conducted two dozen research trips to the autonomous country, and this summer, he and his team, which includes 350.org’s Bill McKibben, will be there again. The group will be collecting data for the Dark Snow Project, a crowd-funded expedition to sample ice cores to determine if ash from global wildfires (like those that incinerated Colorado last summer) is accelerating Greenland’s ice loss.
Box’s theory is simple: Soot darkens ice, thereby decreasing its reflectivity and increasing the rate at which it melts. Whatever his findings, Box’s previous research on the “albedo effect” has foretold a dismal future for the largest island on the planet.
Albedo is a climate feedback loop that occurs as ice melts. During the winter, sea ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean—including Greenland’s—is covered with bright white snow. But, come summertime, when the temperatures are warmer, this almost bleach-white snow melts, exposing the bare sea ice underneath, which is darker in color than the snow. Now, here’s the key—this darker ice absorbs more energy than snow. The absorbed energy, in turn, heats the ocean, which melts even more snow, revealing even more dark ice—a sort of self-sustaining, self-inflicted wound.
In February 2012, Box published a paper on albedo that predicted a “100 percent surface ice melt for Greenland” by the end of the decade.
Even more alarming estimates predict that all of Greenland’s ice—both surface and subsurface—could vanish completely by 2100.
And when this happens, residents around the globe will be displaced from their homes as sea levels rise.
Though he’s seen the alarming evidence firsthand, Box knows that many Americans are reluctant to act on climate change, since the consequences haven’t yet reached dire levels. And asking elected officials to take action on climate change has been a frustrating exercise, since lobbyists from the fossil fuel industry have huge influence in Washington.
“These guys are a rogue force, and even if we expose them as putting profits ahead of the destruction of life on Earth, it’s not going to stop them,” says Box of the fossil fuel industry, which contributed nearly $400,000 per day to U.S. politicians in 2012. “You can’t reason with the most profitable industry in the history of the world; it doesn’t have a soul. It’s like the Terminator. It’s going to come after you until you’re dead.”
At the opposite end of the planet, Bill Fraser has been visiting the same rookeries of Adelie penguins on the same lonely islands off the Western Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) almost every summer since 1974.
During this time, he’s watched the number of breeding pairs of Adelies decline from 32,000 to less than 10,000. Each year, more glaciers disappear thanks to warmer air and sea temperatures, and each year there are fewer Adelies.
“[Global] warming is essentially decoupling Adelies from access to their three most critically needed resources,” he says. “Sea ice in winter, which they need as a platform from which to forage at sea; breeding habitat in summer, which is occurring due to increasing snow precipitation; and prey, like fish and krill, which are themselves being affected by climate-induced food web changes.”
Fraser predicts that in another decade, all of the Adelies will be gone. The ice-dependent species will either move further south in search of more ice, or simply die off.
“The almost incomprehensible change that has occurred is that we have lost a full three months of winter, which is obviously the ice-making season,” says Fraser. “To put this in perspective, just imagine what would happen to agriculture and major population centers in the American West if we lost three months of the snow-making season on which our water supplies depend?”
Over the course of his half-century career, Will Steger estimates that he’s spent more than 1,000 days on Arctic pack ice. But he laments that his historic expeditions could not be duplicated today because the ice simply isn’t there anymore.
“The polar areas used to be 90 percent frozen all summer; now, it’s 50 percent open ocean,” he says.
The Larsen Ice Shelf—where he started his epic, first-of-a-kind 1989 crossing of Antarctica—no longer exists. And, with an ice-free Arctic Ocean, reaching the North Pole by dogsled—as he did in 1986—will soon not be repeatable.
“It’s ironic,” says Steger. “I may go down in history more for the ‘lasts’ my expeditions represent than for the ‘firsts.’ ”
This is why, in 2010, he launched Eyewitness to Climate Change—a sort of global warming road show, where he barnstormed across the country hoping to gin up public support for strong national policy on climate change.
“Climate change is not speculation or a theory; over the past 25 years I have seen it with my own eyes,” he says. “I’ve seen firsthand how glaciers, which seemed so vast and imposing, have shrunk or disappeared in a short amount of time.”
As injurious as climate change has been to the cryosphere, it could get much worse if the so-called climate wildcard is unleashed.
“I’m deeply worried about the melting of the world’s permafrost,” says Steger.
Almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere is covered by permafrost. Entombed in this frozen ground is an awful lot of primordial organic material, mostly roots and leaves, which contains up to 1,700 gigatons of carbon—almost twice the quantity that’s currently in the atmosphere.
Complicating matters, scientists aren’t yet sure of the gaseous form that the carbon in this prehistoric subterranean vault will take when the permafrost inevitably thaws.
While many expect it to be released as carbon dioxide, there are also a growing number that say it could be secreted as methane, which is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
“If we let out this methane, our best efforts won’t work,” says Box. “It’ll be beyond our control. This is the trajectory we’re headed on. It’s only a matter of time.”