Irreversible Antarctic ice sheet melt

This is the healine in multiple media today.  “Irreversible”.  The fine print says it could take up to 1000 years.

Is this as crazy as it sounds?  The media is telling people they just as well give up on stopping global warming because in 1000 or so years, the Antarctic ice sheet will melt?  So no more need to carbon taxes?  No more driving electric cars?  Forget saving the planet—it’s too late?  Wow, that’s really amazing.  Give up—it’s too late.


Check out the climate4kids blog.  There are new posts.


Scientific badger

Scientific badger

14 comments on “Irreversible Antarctic ice sheet melt

  1. Brandon:
    I’ve read your comment through and I’m not sure on some parts, but here goes:
    Yes, this does seem to be old news–or a continuing story, if we are generous.

    Your comments:
    #1 No way to know how fast the thing will happen. Or at least as far as I can tell.
    #2 2014 alarm manufactured…..Who knows?
    #3 Same basic answer as #2. Obama will do what he wants until someone stops him. He really doesn’t need justification. He might use the WAIS information but that would be quite specific. He’s usually more general in blaming things.

    I agree the idea of the paper being released as part of a conspiracy is not likely. I generally don’t believe in conspiracy theory–it takes too much secrecy and cooperation. I do believe people behave in ways they perceive as benefiting themselves and that is often mistaken as a conspiracy.

    Of course everyone in Congress goes on vacation at the same time, they all have cell phones and twitter accounts. I’m sure they speak to each other sometimes (fairly sure anyway…..).

    Eli at ClimateBunny–again, if this is a tipping point, then we either adapt or die. Nature doesn’t care. We have no say in it.

    I do question the validity of there term “tipping point”. I’d need more information on how this conclusion was reached. (You mentioned the ranges of time stated until the tipping point and in some cases no time is given.) The PNAS article claims CO2 was involved, but the others do not. More information would be necessary. I am hesitant to label anything “finished, over done and we’re all doomed without a really strong case.

    Brian Fagan’s books sound fascinating. I”m not much of a reader and I have a couple of other books ahead of any new choices, but I have saved the information I found on Brian and will see if I can fit in a book of his. Thank you for the suggestion.

    #3: Eli Rabett–Yes, climate change may be hell and high water. It is what it is. We adapt or die. Darwin’s theory to the max.

    Your graphic seems to be missing…..

    Speaking of very, very foolish politicalization of global warming (says the woman sitting in front of a space heater in her very cold living room) Al Gore is apparently blaming the civil war in Iraq on global warming. With friends like Al, who needs enemies?

  2. The wiki link is for power generated in 2019—an economic projection. Due to time constraints, I am unable to locate the exact figures—my apologies.

    The wiki article notes:
    Note the use of “costs,” which is not the actual selling price, since this can be affected by a variety of factors such as subsidies and taxes)
    which means this is the cost to produce, not the selling price.

    Two links that might help:

    As with most statistics, the input parameters vary widely. If one adds in the cost of backup power for when the wind does not blow, that inflates the cost. Plus, the 20 year contracts for wind that are signed by power companies often have a built-in cost increase. The ones I have seen are around 3% per year for the life of the contract. Repair costs are reportedly much higher than the wind industry estimated—the turbines to the east of me require blade repair on a regular basis. Not sure if that’s counted in or not. I will honestly say that getting a realistic estimate on this is about as difficult as getting any accounting in any business. So part of my contention is wind is power from the weather and weather is unpredictable. Since we need predictable power, wind has an added cost of backup. There’s much more and you can click on the link to my wind blog if you’re interested. Unfortunately, I can’t really give an exact number. You understand accounting.

    • Brandon Gates says:

      Thanks for the other links. I did know that the link I provided projected total system costs for new plants expected to come online in 2019. I like to look at gummint estimates because they do a lot of homework I don’t have the understanding or resources to do for myself. Relying on current economics alone does not give me a complete enough picture to make informed decisions.

  3. Brandon Gates says:

    Good call on loan guarantees, but it seems the byzantine licensing and regulatory process makes them all but impossible to get done for nukes, and the process takes up to five years.

    My theory is that everybody likes gummint spending so long as it’s being spent on them. It would be interesting to see which states get more/less Federal money than they put in to the coffers … oh wow, I love google:

    Thanks for the further details about the wind turbines. Even more reason for me to be cautious about supporting them. Best I can say is that they provide cheap power.

    • Actually, the industrial ones don’t provide cheap power after you factor in subsidies, tax incentives and backup power. Home ones may or may not. I know some people who say they do okay with them, some who don’t. I really don’t know people who have long term lived with only wind and solar. (You may be referring to turbines plumbed into the grid—which is another story. How cheap they are depends on how much you spend on the turbine and per month for electricity, how much wind you have and remember, you are getting retail cost deducted for any electricity you “sell back” to the grid, which means other customers are getting charged more to make up for this. So far, there are not enough people doing this to greatly increase costs.) Definately something to be cautious about.

      • Brandon Gates says:

        I was lead to believe by US DOE figures that onshore wind was quite favorable in terms of cost per kWh: $80.30.

        Do you have counter-evidence that those figures are unrealistic? I suppose the turbines the DOE is citing are the plugged-into-the-grid variety. I would not be surprised if there’s some loosey-goosey accounting going on here.

        Yes, as with all things political and high-capital, I remain cautiously sceptical, but open.

  4. Brandon Gates says:

    Absolutely take your time, appreciate confirmation of receipt. I am marginally against wind turbines as a major solution because they cannot be a major solution. Wind is just too unreliable and sporadic: ie, not baseload power replacement.

    To the extent they’re employed, it should be limited to places where there are steady winds within the best efficiency range of the generators employed. You’re probably more up on this than me, but I’d suspect that various turbines can be configured for differing expected conditions. I also know the blades feather automagically in response to wind velocity. So there are options.

    In places where property vaules are a particular concern, the fair thing to do is compensate the land owner. I’m sure this is already being done without looking. Probably some lease arrangement paid on a monthly basis to the owner. I rather suspect that the owners just don’t like looking at the darn things. I myself think they’re fascinating and somewhat beautiful in their engineering. Certainly not as ugly as high tension power lines …. or power lines in general, but we’re already used to that. Windfarms are cropping up all over in my neck of the woods though, and they completely ruin the sightlines of California’s gorgeous rolling hills. I don’t hate them — there’s wind in them hills after all — but I understand the argument from the aesthetic point of view.

    Again I say to my rabid liberal enviro-neighbors, replace coal fired plants with nukes. Everyone wins.

    Life is not fair, and yes, deal with it. Everyone believes in the greater good until they have to pay for it. And that’s the root, central issue of the political debate. No different from anything else, but the volume is commensurate with the financial stakes.

    Lest anyone think I play favorites with the liberals on the stakes, I don’t. Yes, they’re saying that they’re willing to pay for it, in dollars, and yes the conservatives don’t want them in their wallets. It’s not at all that one-sided because money is not the only capital involved here.

    I suspect that more people on the concensus side of things than just James Hansen know that nuclear power is the best financial option. Problem is that the left has so thoroughly invested in their anti-nuke propaganda over the decades that breaking from that tradition would incur huge political costs. Look how many progressives feel betrayed by Obama for his run to the center.

    Multiply that by 1,000 and that’s about the level of the lynching Pelosi would face if she and Boehner held hands at the House podium and announced a bi-partisan initiative to completely rewrite nuclear regulatory codes (which basically we need to do first) and agressively begin building more nuclear power plants. Reid would hole up in Yucca mountain and never be seen again. Literally, “You’re not putting that waste here over my dead body.” And he would die defending it rather than face losing his next election.

    On the Republican side, it’s more complex. Cap and trade once apon a time enjoyed moderate approval in the Regan/Bush Sr. era, but specifically that was linked to the acid rain modification to the Clean Air act, IIRC. That modification had bi-partisan support and is today seen as an unqualified success.

    It won’t sell today with Republicans because both parties are much more radicalized and ideologically separated. Further, building a bunch of nukes would require a massive stimulus package and susidy to get moving. So as not to completely push the budget deficit into infinity and beyond, there would have to be a tax increase of some sort to fund it. That could be a revenue neutral carbon tax, which I’d prefer, or a straight up increase in marginal tax rates in the top two brackets.

    Now I’m as sure as I can be about anything to do with economics that such a huge stimulus would far outweigh any drag on the economy from the taxation. Unemployment and GDP would both move in very good directions within a four year election cycle. The long-term gains would be tremendous.

    But selling that kind of policy to the Republican base as it now stands would be a real uphill fight because both “stimulus” and “tax” are profanities in the deep red states. I’m pretty sure that major Republican campaign funders would lobby the heck out of it because there’s a lot of money in that kind of massive captial construction project.

    But the voting base would riot in both parties. Plus, conservative voters are just about as afraid of nuke plants as liberals by my estimation … haven’t looked at the polls lately though.

    How did this get so long? I guess because you ask interesting questions too.

    • I’d pay to see Pelosi and Boehner hold hands and announce a bi-partisan initiative to rewrite nuclear codes!

      Actually, Republicans seem nearly as entrenched in the spend arena as the democrats. There’s a more conservative group that isn’t, but neither party will work with them. It’s all so partisan and dug-in. Selling the Republicans a tax increase would be tricky, but if they actually believed it would create jobs, it might work. Not government jobs, of course. Maybe loan guarantees or something similar would allow things to move ahead. I agree the whole thing is a mess, but I don’t know of any cure, other than letting nature take its course. Maybe in November’s election we’ll see change. Maybe not…..

      Oh- on wind, the landowners with turbines make a great deal of money allowing the turbines on their land. It’s the neighbors that lose out. There have been attempts to get wind companies to compensate neighbors or to pay any loss in value to homes that sell in the area, but wind fights this. Next to the 11 turbines south of my house (about 8 miles) there is an empty house. It sits less than 1/4 mile from the turbines. The owner just gave up trying to sell and left, so far as I know. This is more of a problem in areas where farmers “host” turbines. There are setbacks, but in the case of the turbines to the south of me, the county approved the turbines with only half the setback required and the residents filed suit too late. It was a mess.

  5. Brandon:
    It’s going to be a bit before I can respond to all your comment.

    #4 is an interesting one. I also write about wind turbines. These are rumored to decrease property values and this is “unfair” to property owners. It’s one argument I don’t subscribe to. Yes, they probably do reduce property values. So do many other things. No one guarantees you won’t lose value on your house. The value of our home in Wyoming dropped at least 75% when the “bust” hit two years after we bought it. Fair? It doesn’t matter–it just happened. We hung onto the house and own it today. It took 10 years to be revalued at what we paid for it. When asked what would happen if wind turbines were put in next to our house, my answer was: “We’d walk away if we couldn’t sell it”. Would that be a pain? Sure. But I am not living near wind turbines. Since I don’t own enough land to be certain to keep my distance from them, my option is to leave. (I learned this in high school when my parents sold their house at a loss when a liquor store was built next to it. Life is not fair. Deal with it. They moved to a much nicer location and managed to pay off the house before retirement. There were no inlays in Cleveland. 🙂 )

    That’s it for now. Will return as time permits. You do pose very interesting questions.

  6. Brandon Gates says:

    Hi Sheri:

    My knee jerk reaction is that this is being overblown by the media, causing further knee jerk reactions in the denier community. Which I do not consider you part of. From all our exchanges elsewhere, you are a sceptical truth seeker in the very best tradition of rational inquiry. (Can I put any more butter on this? Dare me?)

    Without looking, my prediction is that the actual literature is far more understated in emotion, and appropriately sceptical of itself in terms of the uncertainty of its current conclusions.

    I will now run off and find whatever primary literature is not pawalled, resorting to secondary literature if necessary. I’ll then report on my findings, and if necessary allow you to force feed me a steaming plate of crow. See, I self-assign homework too. 🙂


    • I haven’t read it through yet, but this is an interesting paper that came up on another blog:

      Click to access grl51035.pdf

      It seems likely it’s overblown—as you have noted before, calm reporting does not sell papers! The use of “irreversible” is probably one of those terms scientists will later regret since it seems to imply there’e nothing we can do. Maybe they’re just using it as an example of what happens if we don’t listen to the warnings? Who can know? 🙂

      (Your “buttering” is quite thorough!)

      • Brandon Gates says:


        Commentary: first and only article I’ve read on this as yet. Very non-panicky relative to snippets I’ve seen elsewhere. If you’d like to lift a quote or two that crosses your scare threshold, please do.



        Nature 393, 325-332 (28 May 1998) | doi:10.1038/30661

        Global warming and the stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

        Michael Oppenheimer


        Of today’s great ice sheets, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet poses the most immediate threat of a large sea-level rise, owing to its potential instability. Complete release of its ice to the ocean would raise global mean sea level by four to six metres, causing major coastal flooding worldwide. Human-induced climate change may play a significant role in controlling the long-term stability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and in determining its contribution to sea-level change in the near future.

        Commentary: Pawalled article, but abstract says enough. No time frame given, either they didn’t have an estimate, or it’s buried in the article itself. In 1998 there was a lot of panic and for good reason, we didn’t have the hindsight then that we do now.


        Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions
        Susan Solomona,
        Gian-Kasper Plattnerb,
        Reto Knuttic and
        Pierre Friedlingsteind

        Author Affiliations
        Contributed by Susan Solomon, December 16, 2008 (received for review November 12, 2008)

        Abstract (partial)

        The severity of damaging human-induced climate change depends not only on the magnitude of the change but also on the potential for irreversibility. This paper shows that the climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years.

        Commentary: non-paywalled article, haven’t read the full text. A good overview of global effects. Note qualifiers “potential for irreversibility” and “largely irreversible”. Some panicky oh-noes.

        Interpretation: irreversible in this context means that dialing back CO2 can stop further heating, but that temperatures will likely remain for LONG periods of time at that level. Runs the risk of being interpreted by the left as “too hot, bad” and by the right as “so what, I like warm weather.” Nuances include further ice melt, consistent with the above article. Irreversible in the sense that stepping on the CO2 brake isn’t going to bring the whole car to a stop in the same distance.

        Caveat: still projections based on uncertain models, let’s not lose our heads here.


        Tons of others. Main point is that the news is not news. It’s continued progress on long-running investigation that most of us forgot was already being studied or just didn’t know was being done.

        Shame that journalists often don’t give that perspective. Really annoying actually. Whether it’s just lazy, due to time contstraints, politically motivated, or pure hype to draw readership and generate ad revenue I can’t say for sure. I’d say it’s mostly time and money and much ignorance in how to do proper reporting on science. I judge the politics by the rag it’s printed in. LA times is undeniably liberal leaning, but far less shrieky than say CNN or MSNBC. No comparison to DailyKos or HuffPo.

        From your link:


        We present a new stable isotope record from Ellsworth Land which provides a valuable 308 year record (1702-2009) of climate variability from coastal West Antarctica. Climate variability at this site is strongly forced by sea surface temperatures and atmospheric pressure in the tropical Pacific and related to local sea ice conditions. The record shows thatthis region has warmed since the late 1950s, at a similar magnitude to that observed in the Antarctic Peninsula and central West Antarctica; however, this warming trend is not unique. More dramatic isotopic warming (and cooling) trends occurred in the mid-nineteenth and eighteenth centuries, suggesting that at present, the effect of anthropogenic climate drivers at this location has not exceeded the natural range of climate variability in the context of the past ~300 years.


        Questions: What are your thoughts, reactions, questions?

        How did I do against my prediction? Are you cookin’ some crow pie for me? 🙂

      • Brandon Gates says:

        Sheri, some counter points.

        Here’s Watts serving up a guest post on the story:

        It’s “old” news, as this publication from 1999 shows us.

        The collapse (retreat of the grounding line) began about 20,000 years ago. It is irreversible because “the WAIS could continue to retreat even in the absence of further external forcing” and there are no topographic obstacles to prevent it from flowing downhill into the ocean.

        One has to wonder why this paper didn’t merit panic-stricken headlines in 1999

        It’s the same story, just from the other side of the peninsula.

        H. Conway et al, 1999. Past and Future Grounding-Line Retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Science 8 October 1999: Vol. 286 no. 5438 pp. 280-283
        DOI: 10.1126/science.286.5438.280


        Commentary: Abstract withheld for brevity, but this appears to be the paper that broke the news. Posting author makes many of the same points I do above about this being news that isn’t, except with an added “ho hum” and “it’s just somewhere else, what’s the big deal here?” Subtext: why are we still spending money on this hoax?

        Which subtext gets outed in the first three comments in the thread:

        #1 Soooo if its been going onward for 20000 years what is the likely hood that it will be done and gone in the next 200?

        #2 The 2014 alarm was fed/manufactured by NASA and by knowingly wrong comments by Rignot of JPL.

        The 2014 alarm was fed/manufactured by NASA and by knowingly wrong comments by Rignot of JPL. For example, the 1.2 meters is the calculation of all the ice in the entire catchment basin of 360,000 square km. one of the two papers at issue showed that the interior portions are gaining ice and have virtually no seaward creep.

        Neither the NASA PR, the NASA website, nor Rignot mention these facts. Pure alarmism, one presumes perhaps in support of the NCA/EPA/Obama agenda in an election year.

        #3 On July 2, Obama’s EPA will run out extreme new and very, very expensive ‘clean air” (no soot) restrictions that will effectively shutdown every coal-fired power plant in the US. Such shutdown would occur WITHOUT a vote or debate in Congress because it could occur by “regulation” within the EPA.

        Yes, there is a waiting period, and a “comment period” .. all strategically timed to occur while the republican Congress is out-of-reach and running for office and NOT available to run a law through stopping it.

        And, in the Obama-dictatorship of the democrat-socialist Senate, no law correcting this regulation would ever be permitted to come up for a vote anyway.

        A veto overriding Obama’s refusal to sign will not happen either.

        The Obama dictatorship’s National Climate Assassination (er, Assessment) and the well-orchestrated West Antarctic Ice Shelf collapse publicity fair were run to lead into this 2 July regulation. Wait for the publicity about it! Or, lack of publicity: There are political reasons for the regime to slip this regulation through without publicity, but using the NCA and WAIS as internal justification for ANY economic loss caused by shutting down the power plants.


        Straight from the science and into partisan politics. The only reasonable question is #1, but it’s a leading one which is rhetorically saying, “this is all natural variation and residual melting momentum from the last glacial”.

        The rest speculative conspiracy theories. Yes, it rests on the indisputable fact that liberal environmentalists are a very strong lobby within the Democratic base, but to suggest that the timing of climate research papers is motivated by political calculus strains credibility to the point of being ludicrous. Granted, there’s a rush before each IPCC assessment, and granted there’s a big political component to that.

        But between assessment reports the researchers themselves and the journals publishing their results have far more important things to worry about than when the Republicans are on recess from Congress. Important as in doing research and getting it published.

        Unless I’m missing something here. I was under the impression that the Democrats go on recess at the same time. (Yet both parties are always on the playground squabbling.) Just because they’re on recess doesn’t mean that the Executive branch can act with impunity. Wherever any politician is, there’s a tv camera within 30 minutes of their location. They have cell phones as far as I’m aware so they can text, talk, or Tweet to their heart’s content when things like this come up.

        Not only are these arguments not addressing the science itself, the political innuendo is pretty much nonsense.

        This is Doing It Wrong.

        Counter counter point, over at the Climate Bunny’s house:

        Eli has pointed out that something like the WAIS collapse, once it enters the final stage, which only takes decades, cannot be adapted to, and, given that the long slide towards an inevitable collapse has begun, mitigation is a train that has long left the station.

        A word from Dano, more of a world view about what to do


        By now, bunnies surely have shared carrots at the bar discussing the two new papers about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) passing a ‘tipping point’ to an inevitable collapse. I’m interested in the way so many outlets recently reported about “tipping points” – especially in the context of decades‐old warnings about the WAIS instability. Especially with respect to the threat to coastal cities and the additional sea level rise from the WAIS.

        So what are ‘tipping points’ anyway? In simple terms, it is the “point” at which change occurs beyond which there is no return. In ecological terms, it is the “point” at which ecosystems “flip” into a different state, which can be more or less stable than the previous state. I like to modify this visualization below, originally from Bass that attempts to depict social diffusion to help explain tipping points. The inflection point I sometimes label as an ‘a‐ha’ moment depending on the audience:



        Commentary: here are the first few comments on the article.


        Read Brian Fagan’s Attacking Ocean, or if he talks nearby go.
        For time frames, emulate the Dutch.
        Do not move to Miami.
        25/5/14 11:13 PM


        “When practitioners talk about “sustainability”, if they are educated in the sciences they mean something paraphrased from Brundtland: “not using it all up now and saving some for future generations”.”

        What you mean ‘they’?

        In the long run , regulation is debt, and posterity is left holding the bill, not the bonds, come hell or low water.
        26/5/14 4:01 AM

        #3 EliRabett said…

        In the long run climate change is Hell AND high water.
        26/5/14 5:40 AM


        Lets discuss tipping points on a personal basis.

        A home owner residing on property a meter above high tide has experienced several tidal surges that destroyed furniture items and each time he files a claim with his insurance company. Following the most recent event he had no insurance and suffered the loss. Now, he has given up his retirement home and put it on the market. Months go by with no contract, no closure. The mortgage underwriters will not touch the property because it cannot be insured. He now has a stranded asset. His investment is worthless. He waits for the next tipping point, in his life, when he is forced to throw the keys into the ocean and move in with his in-laws living in Cleveland.


        Yes there’s some snark going on here. There is political talk going on, more so than the science. But it’s a discussion. The arguments are not outlandish even though they’re unsupported and opinionated. A reasonable debate. And Eli is one of the bigger snark masters on the concensus side out there.

        All of this is very selective and anecdotal on my part, and thoroughly subject to my own quite strong biases. But these patterns of discussion I see in each two communities feel very distinctly real to me given all that I have been reading over the past 10 years.

        Done for now until you respond. Cheers.

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