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How a glacier 7,000 miles away could impact the future of Louisiana

  As 2021 came to a close, Louisiana got very important information from a key location in its fight for coastal survival, information local...

 


As 2021 came to a close, Louisiana got very important information from a key location in its fight for coastal survival, information local news outlets paid scant attention to.

No, it didn’t come from Baton Rouge or Washington, D.C.

It came from more than 7,000 miles away at what is a lynchpin in Louisiana’s efforts to stay above the rising seas: Antarctica.

And, no, it wasn’t good news.

There’s growing evidence the Thwaites Glacier — at the size of Britain, the world’s largest — is in danger of sliding into the ocean much sooner than previously thought. That would not only raise sea levels fast enough to begin flooding coastal landscapes like Louisiana in the decades ahead, researchers say, but also lead to a domino effect resulting in unstoppable worldwide flooding that would last for centuries.

That worry comes after researchers discovered ocean currents warmed by climate change have been melting the bottom of the glacier’s miles-long ice sheet that extends from its land end out over the ocean. The ice sheet acts as a buffer protecting the base of the glacier from the full effects of the warming ocean as well as a speed bump to slow its natural downward movement toward the sea. This new evidence showed the bottom-up erosion is creating huge fractures in the ice sheet which could cause it to break up and float away in 5 to 10 years.

“This would add as much as an inch each year to sea level rise in the decades ahead resulting in as much as an extra foot this century alone,” said Brent Goehring, a Tulane University researcher who is part of an international team studying the glacier.

“Obviously this should be a very serious concern here in New Orleans because we’re already having problems with current rates of sea level rise on the Louisiana coast.”

Antarctica has always been considered a key to our future in the age of global warming because of the vast amount of water it could dump into the oceans. Roughly the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined, it is covered in ice averaging 7,000 feet thick — about 70% of the planet’s total fresh water. With the oceans already rising at rates faster than at any time in the last 2,800 years due to warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions, adding even a new inch could have devastating consequences for Louisiana’s effort to save some of its coastal zone. The Thwaites Glacier alone could add as much as two feet, studies show.

And while researchers say Thwaites has been melting about twice as fast over the last 30 years and already accounts for 4% of current sea level rise, they didn’t think it could become catastrophic this century.

But the news that the ice sheet could be gone within a decade has dramatically changed that outlook. It turns out there’s a reason scientists studying sea level rise years ago dubbed Thwaites the “Doomsday Glacier.”

“The Thwaites Glacier is like a cork in that part of Antarctica,” Goehring said. “Pull that cork and a lot of other things start going off toward the ocean.”

So, if not slowed, the Thwaites demise would not only cause severe flooding this century but could result is massive coastal flooding for centuries to come, inundating landscapes where 40% of the world’s population lives.

Of course, the remedy for such dire consequences is included in the research. You can find it right there in the causes outlined for the predicted tragedies: warming caused by emissions.

Reduce emissions quickly, and our chances of survival increase. It’s the same message included in Louisiana’s own, world-leading coastal master plan.

Unfortunately, there is still strong political resistance to taking that painful step. And voters in Louisiana and other states most threatened by sea level rise keep sending those resisters to Washington and Baton Rouge.

Sounds like a perfect doomsday partnership for our grandchildren.


Bob Marshall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Louisiana environmental journalist, can be reached at bmarshallenviro@gmail.com, and followed on Twitter @BMarshallEnviro

www.nola.com

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