The Fate of Greenland

The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change

PHILIP CONKLING
RICHARD ALLEY
WALLACE BROECKER
GEORGE DENTON
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY COMER
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 232
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt9qf85c
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  • Book Info
    The Fate of Greenland
    Book Description:

    Viewed from above, Greenland offers an endless vista of whiteness interrupted only by scattered ponds of azure-colored melt water. Ninety percent of Greenland is covered by ice; its ice sheet, the largest outside Antarctica, stretches almost 1,000 miles from north to south and 600 miles from east to west. But this stark view of ice and snow is changing -- and changing rapidly. Greenland's ice sheet is melting; the dazzling, photogenic display of icebergs breaking off Greenland's rapidly melting glaciers has become a tourist attraction.The Fate of Greenlanddocuments Greenland's warming with dramatic color photographs and investigates episodes in Greenland's climate history for clues about what happens when climate change is abrupt rather than gradual.Greenland's climate past and present could presage our climate future. Abrupt climate change would be cataclysmic: the melting of Greenland's ice shelf would cause sea levels to rise twenty-four feet worldwide; lower Manhattan would be underwater and Florida's coastline would recede to Orlando. The planet appears to be in a period of acute climate instability, exacerbated by carbon dioxide we pour into the atmosphere. As this book makes clear, it is in all of our interests to pay attention to Greenland.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-29546-8
    Subjects: Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. PREFACE
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: LESSONS FROM ABRUPT CLIMATE CHANGE
    (pp. 1-24)

    Greenland is the world’s largest island, 90 percent of which is covered by ice. Greenland is also one of the remote wonders of the world. Greenland’s ice sheet—the largest outside Antarctica—stretches almost 1,000 miles from north to south and is 600 miles east to west. The view from a small plane out over the endless desolation of snow and ice in the high summer light is an experience in the incredible whiteness of being. Scattered here and there over the ice sheet surface are little ponds of azure-colored melt water that present a striking contrast to the all-encompassing...

  6. 1 MYSTERY OF THE ICE AGES
    (pp. 25-46)

    Tourists love to get near glaciers, but most people prefer to live elsewhere, and for good reasons. Strong, cold winds often drain down-valley from the icy glaciers. The soils just beyond the ice are usually rocky and poor, and often there is no soil at all, just bare rock or gravel. A hungry farmer looks elsewhere for a new row to hoe.

    Centuries ago, the people who lived near glaciers, whether high in European valleys or elsewhere, knew that the glaciers grew and shrank with the changing climate. At least some of those people realized that the stony soils, bare...

  7. 2 ROSETTA STONES FROM THE GREENLAND ICE SHEET
    (pp. 47-74)

    A master detective notices the one clean square surrounded by thick dust on the shelf, and knows that the box with the evidence has been taken away. An archeologist uses brush and trowel, and layer-by-layer unearths the history of the long-gone people. And a polar explorer rises in the morning to see that snow from last night’s storm has buried the tracks from yesterday. The polar explorer is a friend of the archeologist, has read the tales of the great detective, and knows instinctively that the layers of ice beneath those buried tracks must be a history book, too.

    Alfred...

  8. 3 A ROLE FOR ALL SEASONS
    (pp. 75-100)

    Dryas octapedula, variously known as mountain avens, white dryas, or white dryad is a lovely little arctic-alpine flowering plant usually found growing as a small prostrate evergreen shrub with an eight-petaled white flower. This hardy plant, which grows today in the tundra of the Arctic, has also played a critical role in the study of paleoclimates.

    More than a century agoDryaspollen was discovered in abundance in the late-glacial deposits of northwestern Europe, which suggested that Arctic tundra conditions had once blanketed northern Europe. Axel Blytt and Rutger Sernander recognized that alternations in the color of peat layers of...

  9. 4 THE GREAT OCEAN CONVEYOR
    (pp. 101-120)

    Theconveyoris one of the ocean’s great global current loops. It originates in the northernmost regions of the Atlantic Ocean where, during the winter, frigid air flowing off Canada and Greenland cools, and hence densifies, the salty waters carried into this region by the Gulf Stream. The result is that the surface water becomes dense enough to sink into the abyss to form what is known by oceanographers as North Atlantic Deep Water. This water drifts southward down the length of the Atlantic. When it reaches the tip of Africa, it joins the ocean’s mighty Mixmaster, a circular torrent...

  10. 5 A WOBBLY NORTH ATLANTIC CONVEYOR?
    (pp. 121-146)

    In the 1930s Francois Matthes, working for the United States Geological Survey, studied very young moraines deposited by small glaciers in the Sierra Nevada of California, and during an interview with a journalist introduced the termLittle Ice Ageto describe the time interval during which these moraines were deposited. The term has endured ever since, although its usage has varied. The modern application of the term generally applies to a relatively cold interval over the last few centuries, marked by expansion of mountain glaciers. Hubert Lamb, the great climate historian, defined the Little Ice Age as the period when...

  11. 6 GREENLAND’S CLIMATE SIGNAL ACROSS THE GLOBE
    (pp. 147-164)

    With the discoveries of abrupt climate changes revealed in the Greenland ice cores and the evidence of big ice sheet collapses revealed in Heinrich’s ice-rafted debris, Wallace Broecker began to wrestle with the question of how much of the rest of Earth might also have experienced these events. In particular, he began to think about the experiences of his early career in arid parts of the western United States.

    Because Broecker grew up poor in the mid-west’s flatlands and majored in math and physics, the subject of geology had never captured his attention. His first encounter with a geologist came...

  12. 7 CARBON DIOXIDE AND THE FATE OF THE GREENLAND ICE SHEET The Carbon Dioxide Question
    (pp. 165-182)

    In the previous chapters, we described some of what we know about the paleoclimatic history of Greenland and its relation to the history of the planet. But you might wonder, what does this have to tell us about the future? A lot, it turns out. To see this, though, we need just a little additional background.

    We humans are rapidly converting fossil fuels into carbon dioxide, releasing the solar energy stored in the coal, oil, and natural gas in the rocks beneath us about a million times faster than nature saved it. CO2is rising, contributing to observed warming. With...

  13. 8 OUT OF THE ICE: The Lessons from Greenland
    (pp. 183-204)

    The public debate about climate change has been treated in the press as having two sides—the science showing that our business-as-usual actions will change the climate in ways that on average hurt us, and the opposition arguing that things might end up better than that projection. As noted in the previous chapter, such a two-sided view has always been overly simplistic—there are many more sides; in particular, the possibility that things might end up a lot worse. Our research in Greenland is part of a larger body of emerging science on abrupt climate change, emphasizing the lop-sidedness of...

  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 205-210)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 211-216)