Chapter 6: Tipping points
The day after my encounter with the mountain pine beetle, we have an appointment with the glaciologist John Pomeroy. His team of researchers from the University of Saskatchewan has offered to bring me up onto the Athabasca glacier.
Along the walk leading up to the glacier there are signs placed out by the side of the pathway. Every sign marks a certain year. John stops and points at one that says 1982. “That means that this is where the glacier began in that year.”
It looks quite strange as there is no sight of any nearby glacier whatsoever.
“It was around that time I started working here,” he continues. “Since then I have watched with my own eyes how the glacier has disappeared, meter by meter.”
Due to global heating the Athabasca glacier has, in the last 125 years, retreated 1.5 km and lost half its volume. According to the latest estimates, it’s currently withdrawing 5 metres every year.
I was instructed to wear every piece of warm clothing that I have, since Katabatic winds –winds that form over glaciers– can be ruthless. And they weren’t exaggerating. Once we step onto the ice it gets almost impossible to move forward, let alone to stand up straight. There’s a heavy snowfall passing by, reminding us that the full force of the long Canadian winter is about to arrive any day now.
We struggle on in our borrowed boots, using ski poles to support our balance and weight. When we reach a place John considers good enough, he stops, takes off his backpack and starts unpacking his gear. He takes measurements while explaining the procedures step by step.
Then he starts chipping into the ice. He breaks off a piece and gives it to me.
“If you look carefully, you see it’s full of small black dots. That’s soot,” he says.
Where does the soot come from?, I ask.
“It’s from the wildfires that burn here every year. The woods lose a lot of their resilience to the fires as there are so many dead trees all over the forest that become like firewood.”
I realize he’s referring to the trees I saw yesterday.
“When there’s this much soot then the entire glacier turns grey,” he continues. “And since a dark surface absorbs more heat than a white one, it means the glacier will melt even faster. It’s a feedback loop. A part of a chain reaction.”
I ask whether this glacier can be saved or not. He shakes his head.
“No, this one has already passed its tipping point and there’s nothing we can do. We estimate that it –along with countless other glaciers– will be gone completely within this century. The world’s glaciers are called the third polar ice cap. Imagine all the people that depend on these glaciers as their source of drinking water. And as if that wasn’t enough, we have now gotten used to – and built our infrastructure around a very high water flow, since the melting process obviously has been way higher than it normally is. That will make it even harder for us to adjust when it starts to run dry.”
How many people are relying on the glaciers in this area for their drinking water, I ask.
“The entire western North America,” he replies. “But the same process is happening all over the world. The Andes, The Alps. And above all in Asia, where up to 2 billion people depend on the natural melting process of the glaciers in Himalaya for their very survival.”
So, in short: the temperature increases, the damaging mountain pine beetle survives the winter and dramatically increases in population. The trees die and turn into wildfire fuel which intensifies the wildfires even further. The soot from those fires makes the surface of the glaciers turn darker and the melting process speeds up even faster.
This is a textbook example of a reinforcing chain reaction, which in itself is just a small part of a much larger holistic pattern connected to our emissions of greenhouse gases.
There are countless other tipping points and chain reactions. Some have not yet happened. And some are very much a reality already today. Such as the release of methane due to thawing permafrost or other phenomena linked to deforestation, dying coral reefs, weakening or changing ocean currents, algae growing on the Antarctic ice, increasing ocean temperatures, changes in monsoon patterns and so on.
Another overlooked factor is the already built in additional warming hidden by life threatening air pollution, this means that once we stop burning fossil fuels we can expect to see an already locked in warming, perhaps as high as 0.5-1.1°C.
It’s all part of an infinite chain of events that constantly trigger and create new events. And new events. And new events. There just doesn’t seem to be an end.
This is the transcript of Chapter 6 of the Sverige Radio program aired on June 20, 2020 with the title Greta Thunberg: Humanity has not yet failed.
The full transcript was published by Time magazine on July 10, 2020. Here it is offered in chapters to make it easier to read.