Melt and Rise

As major glaciers melt, Covid-19 sidelines climate strategy talks

Two major glaciers are breaking up. That's bad news.

In Antarctica, two major ice shelves — the Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers — are breaking up. While scientists have tracked signs of the glaciers diminishing for years, a new study has sparked concerns over what the melt could mean for sea level rise.

Satellite images show structural weakness that could facilitate the glaciers' disintegration. Because the masses of ice account for 5 percent of the world's sea level rise, the report authors suggest we need to pay more attention to the rapid ice melt. The study was released Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Rising seas are also a priority point in a separate report released on September 9 by the World Meteorological Organization. The WMO, which is part of the United Nations, lists the acceleration of sea level rise due to polar ice melt as one of its top concerns.

The reports come as wildfires continue to rage in the western United States, and the climate conversation dominating social media is impossible to miss. It's not often that specific glacier names, like Thwaites, are trending searches.

The global climate conversation was supposed to get a boost in November at the UN's annual climate change summit — a meeting where, in theory, concerns become actions. But this year's meeting was postponed due to the pandemic. Its intended venue in Glasgow is now equipped to be used as a temporary hospital.

The crudest parallel between Covid-19 and climate change is that both are unprecedented threats to humanity. UN leaders argue that both also require science and solidarity to move forward.

Pandemic and climate connections — Early on in the pandemic, it seemed that stay-at-home orders would, at least, help to literally clear the air. With fewer people traveling or commuting, and many offices shut down, running society was less costly to the environment.

Some initial air-clearing effects were visible from space. NASA satellite images showed an incredible reduction in air pollution. On Earth, we celebrated the return of animals and flooded the internet with memes about how nature is recovering while we leave it alone.

In the long term, though, the global pandemic is not a climate fix. Carbon dioxide emissions did drop 17 percent in April. But throughout 2020, they are estimated to decline between 4 and 7 percent overall, according to the new WMO report.

That reduction is not nearly big enough, scientists say. Carbon dioxide levels are at a high point over the past three million years, the scientists report. CO2 emissions are currently 62 percent higher than they were in 1990.

The report calls this out among other crucial climate concerns:

  • Covid-19 has not led to a long-term drop in greenhouse gases
  • 2016-2020 is set to be the warmest 5 years on record
  • Sea level rise is accelerating
  • Droughts and floods are causing the most damage
  • Melting glaciers threaten the water supply for billions of people

The UN meeting in November was meant to be a time to act on climate change to prevent harmful effects linked to these concerns. Instead, that effort has been undercut by the pandemic, with no indication that continued lockdown will actually lead to any meaningful emissions reductions.

Epidemiology meets climate science— The new reports prove that we are a long way from the intense climate action that scientists say is necessary for curbing the rate of climate change.

With climate talks postponed, UN leaders urge collaboration in fighting both Covid-19 and climate change.

"We need science, solidarity, and solutions to tackle both the COVID-19 pandemic and the climate crisis," said UN secretary-general António Guterres in a statement. Guterres urged leaders to "unite behind science" and to use the current moment as a launching point for action.

"Never before has it been so clear that we need long-term, inclusive, clean transitions to tackle the climate crisis and achieve sustainable development," Guterres said. "We must turn the recovery from the pandemic into a real opportunity to build a better future."

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