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Top Antarctic scientists warn NZ 'not ready' for worst as climate changes

Two top US Antarctic scientists warn New Zealand is "not ready" for the worst as ice shelves and sea ice in Antarctica retreat and the climate changes.

Otago University Professor Gary Wilson told TV3's Frontline that the last time the world had CO2 levels as high as today, the West Antarctic ice shelf collapsed; a shelf containing 20m-worth of sea level rise. So "we know the end game, we just don't how fast it might happen," Prof Willson says.  "We're certainly heading into the danger level".

If global temperature increases continue along the same path as now, we will see more ice melt and the impact on Antarctica will be "much worse"

That impacts the New Zealand economy, which is dependent on ocean and climate conditions driven by Antarctica, Prof Wilson says.

Oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt says China, Russia and other countries have a "clear eye" on oil, gas and fisheries in Antarctica and "it's not clear" whether the Antarctic Treaty will protect the continent from exploitation

RAW DATA: The Nation transcript: Lisa Owen talks to US oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt and Professor Gary Wilson

Lisa Owen: I’m going to come to you first Chuck, let’s flesh out why this matters. What is Antarctica doing for the rest of the globe?

Chuck Kennicutt: To put it simply Antarctica serves a critical role in the earth’s system and this is related mainly to the energy, the heat but also the water budget. So in areas like Antarctica that change, they affect the entire global system and this is seen through melting of ice, warming of sea water, changing of weather and also the ozone hole which has led to effects that we see around the globe.

So basically it’s the engine room?


So in light of that, the IPCC says that we’re not cutting greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep temperature rises below 2 degrees so what would that mean for Antarctica?

Well, what we see and these predictions are based on the best scientific knowledge that we have today. And what we understand is that those types of temperature rises will continue not only in the trends that we already have seen but accelerate them. So there’ll be more melting of ice, there’ll be more rising of ocean water temperatures and air temperatures so we can very accurately predict now that continuing along the same path that we’ve been following will simply make the effects that we see much worse into the future.

So what are you seeing now in terms of changes?

Well what we see is loss of sea ice which is generally related to a rise in sea level globally, we see the disintegration of ice shelves, retreat of glaciers we see across the globe and also shifts in the populations of various species so it’s a real wide range of impacts across the spectrum of the physical and living environment.

So it’s the West Antarctic Ice Shelf that’s making scientists particularly concerned isn’t it? Why is that?

That’s an interesting question and what leads to that is most of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf is actually below sea level so it means that the ice is below the surface of the water and it raises a lot of questions. And we know over geologic history that that ice shelf has completely disintegrated and the question is, is that the most vulnerable part of Antarctica? As we heard there’s about 60 metres of sea level rise that potentially would happen if all of Antarctica melted and about 20 metres of that is in West Antarctica.

And what are the other consequences of that, you know, does it dilute a nutrient-rich ocean, what happens?

It fundamentally changes the heat and energy balance of the planet. The most direct connection though is the actual supply of water into the ocean. Typically you see particularly around Auckland and other major cities worldwide, they’re very close to the water so very small, literally feet, metres rise of sea level will inundate most of the major cities worldwide.

That’s the perfect opportunity to bring Gary into the conversation – what impact will it have directly on New Zealand then, starting with say the weather here?

Gary Wilson: Well I think the first point is to just go back and say Antarctica might seem like this place on the bottom of the planet but yes, it’s connected directly to here so the Antarctic Circumpolar Current washes across southern New Zealand and all the ocean fronts are kind of stacked up in the New Zealand part of the world.

So what does that mean for us – rainfall you’re talking about here?

That’s just in the ocean but when it comes to the atmosphere the same is true. That the atmosphere is subdivided so you’ve got a cold polar cell of circulation around Antarctica and that boundary and the westerly wind system comes across New Zealand and the westerly winds bring our rainfall, certainly in the South Island. But that’s the major contributor to rainfall in the South Island.

So our economy – fishing, farming, tourism – how dependent is all of this on Antarctica?

I mean most of it’s dependent on primary industries so it’s all dependent on the environment and it’s all dependent on ocean and climate and in the long term those things are connected to what’s driven out of Antarctica. In the short-term, we see some impact from the north as well and the interaction between the warm north and the cold south but in the long term it’s the Antarctic that’s driving those longer term trends.

What will those trends be? We talk about one-in-one hundred year storms – that will become potentially a storm a year? What are the consequences?

I think the contribution from Antarctica can be considered something of a baseline so if you’re raising sea level, yes you might see incremental rises in sea level of millimetres per year and centimetres per decade but as you increase the sea level the storm intensity and the ability of the storm to inundate coastal areas of course is intensified. So that’s, the two go hand in hand really.

So we know that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed before so it’s conceivable it could happen again. What is the best scientific guess for if, and when that might happen again?

Well rather than guessing if we look back in geological time, what we know is that the last time the Earth had a CO2 level of about 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, then that was the end solution of a prolonged earth in that state, was that the West Antarctic ice sheet retreated. In a couple of years we’re in 400 parts per million, the question then is –

So we’re heading into the danger level is what you’re saying?

We’re certainly heading into the danger level but the question is what’s the pathway to get there? Are we going to see incremental melting and incremental increase in the climate warming if you like or are there going to steps and changes and thresholds and tipping points in that so that it kind of goes up in jerky movements rather than just the straight line condition and that’s the unanswered question. What’s that going to look like.

So we have about a hundred thousand New Zealanders who are living within I think it’s three metres of the coastline and we’ve got a lot of low-lying cities, all our airports seem to be right next to the ocean. Even this week when we had a storm, a number of the roads were covered in water because they’re right next to the ocean so are we ready for the worst?

Well the short answer is no. We’re not ready. But the real question is how do we get ready? And that’s where the research comes in. It’s a question of you know, what are the timeframes on this change, what can we work out about how fast this change is going to happen. We kind of know the end game, we don’t know the rates of getting there. So really that’s where the research comes in. I’d like to think that over the next, 10, 20 years we can actually get some solid research in to be able to develop the policies and plans around it.

But what can we do now from what we know now?

I mean there’s two answers to that. And one is you know one is can we mitigate this or are we planning to adapt and I guess we’re planning to adapt. But at some point we probably want the world to take more notice because we’re a pretty small emitter here and really New Zealand can play on the international research stage and point out what it is that’s so important about this part of the world and these currents that we’re talking about, the westerly winds and what does that mean globally, so that globally people take a bit more attention, pay some attention

I just want to pick up on what you said there, you said we’re moving to adaption. So are we talking about life behind sea walls or do we actually need to make some radical changes like saying leave your car at home two days a week, cap dairying or are we just accepting this is a fait accompli and we’re just working with it.

Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean –

What do you think though?

We’re certainly committed to a degree of change. We’re certainly committed to some change at this point so it’s not good enough to just say we can now mitigate the change because CO2 levels haven’t actually leveled out in the atmosphere yet. They’re climbing faster than ever. So we’re certainly committed to seeing some change so we’re going to have to do some adapting. We’re not going to be able to maintain some of these coastal infrastructures and we’re going to have to think about how we use our land.

So what do you think of that Chuck? We’re accepting it, we’re just going to tinker?

Well essentially what Gary is saying, if we do not act we are committed to the changes not only that we’re seeing but as I mentioned accelerating changes and the only recourse at that point will be adaption, which as you say, will be moving away from coastal areas, sea walls, a number of ways of addressing the change in climate and so it really becomes a matter of public will. And are we willing to do things that really impact our daily lives but solve these problems in the long term and that’s really I think the political debate that’s going on now.

I want to pick up on willingness in the context that we know one of the biggest drivers of our problems here is economic growth. We’re getting millions of people out of poverty around the world, through development, we’re feeding them our dairy products at a massive rate, how do we balance that tension between slowing climate change and bringing people’s lot up?

There’s two assumptions there. One is that economic growth is only realised at the cost of environmental impact and I think that’s a sort of false bargain. And so the question is, is future growth going to follow the same trajectory that past growth has. A lot of the technologies we currently use were really invented in the 1950s, 1960s and as we go forward it’s not necessarily the case that future economic growth is going to follow using these same technologies and there’s a lot of effort now to really reduce the per capita consumption of energy which is the fundamental currency which drives climate change. And if those technologies are put into place you can have both economic growth at the same time as protecting the environment. So I don’t think you necessarily have to sell your future simply to have to raise the level of the economy worldwide.

I want to just touch on another issue, which is resources. We know that there’s a treaty aimed at protecting Antarctica but isn’t one of the big issues when it comes to this part of the world, mining and resources and a potential rush for those goodies?

That’s another very good question. The Antarctic Treaty has been in force for about 50 years, a little over 50 years and New Zealand has been a very active member in making sure that the Antarctic is managed in a ways, manner based on science. But going forward though is as we have this increasing demand for resources worldwide, will the Antarctic Treaty be stable enough to be able to manage those types of changes and it’s not clear.

The Chinese have already said that they’re looking at science there in order to, and this is a quote from the president, take advantage of ocean and polar resources. That sounds like more than just gathering information?

Yes, and that’s correct. If you look at the history of Antarctica, science is only one aspect of why people are in Antarctica. It’s also geopolitical as well as resource based and there’s many countries out there – China, including Russia – who have a clear eye on the natural resources not only oil and gas, fisheries and bio-prospecting and the use of other resources. So again, it comes back to the question of whether this international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty will be able to mediate those types of pressures going into the future.


Comments and questions

This reads like old news, Surely Kennicutt and Wilson must be aware that this hysterical tripe they are promoting is so yesterday. Further, the reference to 20m must be a typo as it is utterly illogical that even a very large ice cube dumped in the southern ocean when extrapolated over the worlds oceans wouldn't even make 20mm if anything.
I reckon there is more truth in these guys having the begging bowl out looking for more funding or work opportunities. Time for me to read more important news, sorry guys.

In January 2006, in a UK government-commissioned report, the head of the British Antarctic Survey, Chris Rapley, warned that this huge west Antarctic ice sheet may be starting to disintegrate.

A new urgency has been injected into the study of the stability of West ice sheet. A team from the Center for Scientific Studies of Santiago (CECS), NASA and the German Geological Survey (BGR) plans a new series of investigations, concentrating on the Amundsen Sea region in 2004/2005.

two New Zealand Antarctic scientists: Dr Ed Butler, Antarctica New Zealand and Professor Craig Cary, University of Waikato ... participated in the workshop" Chilean and New Zealand Antarctic Science Programs: Opportunities for Cooperation" that formed part of the 8th Meeting of Chilean Antarctic Research.

The discovery of leaf and dinosaur fossils in South America has revealed the continent was connected to Antarctica 20 million years more recently than previously believed.

These mountains are considered to be a continuation of the Andes of South America, with a submarine spine or ridge connecting the two. This is the basis for the position advanced by Chile and Argentina for their territorial claims. The Scotia Arc is the island arc system that links the mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula to those of Tierra del Fuego.

A New Zealand scientist, Rhodes W. Fairbridge, author of "The Geology of the Antarctic" (1952), supports the submarine ridge thesis advanced by Chile.

Is your post meant to be a joke?
Are you in all seriousness claiming that if the Antarctic ice sheets collapse the sea levels won't rise more than 20mm?
Is this the level of 'scepticism' we have sunk to now that climate change has become an obvious everyday reality all over the world?
Sea levels are ALREADY rising at 3.13mm per year and have been for decades now. And that's without any major collapse of ice sheets so far.
What extraordinary ignorance of simple basic schoolboy science you display.
It's just insulting to expect the average reader to be taken in by such absurd denialist junk.

These two scientists omitted the inconvenient truth that the Antarctic has been getting colder with significantly more ice over the last 35 years. Maybe they thought they were talking about the Arctic.

Utter bilge.
The Antarctic is losing ice mass at an accelerating rate.

Between 1992 and 2001, ice was melting from the two main ice sheets at a rate of about 64 billion tonnes a year.

From 2002 to 2011, the ice sheets were melting at a rate of about 362 billion tonnes a year – an almost six-fold increase.

Simple, observable, measurable fact.

Read some science papers not Murdoch's junk.
You are yet another victim of the deliberate attempt to confuse the public with the figures for the temporary winter SEA ICE extent in the Antarctic which IS expanding and has been expanding as projected for the last 50 years as a rsult of the increased hydrological cycle - itself a product of global warming.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and you clearly have very little knowledge. Please don't post on this subject again until you have read at least the schoolboy level stuff,
It makes YOU look ignorant and it's insulting to US.

I see you have read the IPCC summary for policymakers which goes on to say:

It is very likely that the annual mean Antarctic sea ice extent increased at a rate in the range of 1.2 to 1.8% per decade
(range of 0.13 to 0.20 million km2
per decade) between 1979 and 2012. There is high confidence that there are strong
regional differences in this annual rate, with extent increasing in some regions and decreasing in others. {4.2}

In the Antarctic, a decrease in sea ice extent and volume is projected with LOW CONFIDENCE for the end of the 21st century
as global mean surface temperature rises. {12.4}

The summary does say:
The average rate of ice loss from the Antarctic ice sheet has likely increased from 30 [–37 to 97] Gt yr–1 over the period
1992–2001 to 147 [72 to 221] Gt yr–1 over the period 2002 to 2011. There is very high confidence that these losses are
mainly from the northern Antarctic Peninsula and the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica. {4.4}

but the summary fails to say that it is only the Antarctic Peninsula region, which contains just 11% of Antarctic ice volume, that is undergoing warming and melting of ice, and that this is arguably due to regional factors and can't be linked to rising CO2 concentrations.

Also to the point is that temperatures have fallen since 1950 in the interior of the dominant East Antarctic Ice Sheet, the volume of which is either stable or growing slightly, as is the extent of peripheral Antarctic sea ice.

You can selectively quote what you like and abuse others for having an alternate view but that isn't winning the argument.

This is old news, April Fools day was 3 weeks ago

Eleven of the Worlds fifteen biggest cities are only one meter above sea level so we don't need much for a disaster. Christchurch CBD and Auckland airport are only one meter above sea level plus a lot of other infrastructure,
New Zealands climate scientists are amongst the best in the World so we are not short of expert advice.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command, told TVNZ's Q + A programme New Zealand's experience in the South Pacific would add valuable insight to some of the issues facing the council.

"One of the things I value very much, even in our relationship, security relationship, with the armed forces of New Zealand, is that you all have a very unique view, a very valuable view of the South Pacific, and of this region, the Antarctic region, which is important to the overall security environment," Admiral Locklear said. "So I think if you extrapolate that view into the issues that the UN Security Council are dealing with, I couldn't see why New Zealand wouldn't be a great addition to that." .

These two "scientists" base their predictions on the IPCC GCM's Climate models that have not been validated nor have they had any skill in predicting temperature in the past or the future. The latest ice reports are at record levels in Antarctica, There has been no warming for the last 17 years and 8 months while CO2 has been increasing. The projections from sensible scientists is that we are in the cold phase of the Pacific Decadel Oscillation and therefore we are unlikely to see significant warming for the next 20 years. Sea level rise is creeping along as it has in the past at around 1.7 mm/year on average. Nothing that the IPCC and it's alarmist evangelists have predicted has come true. Ask these scientists how long will it take for the WAIS to melt and then see if we have a problem that we should address before we solve world poverty, health and make alternative energy solutions cheap as chips instead of financial prohibitive.
It is scientist like these scaremongers that we have to thank for the Emmissions Trading Scheme that has brought nothing but increased prices for no benefit to mother earth whatsoever. The market has priced carbon in our scheme at $0.25 that's 1/100th of what it was projected to be in the policy implementation. That pricing is at least something to be thankful for.The alarmist predictions of these scientist do nothing to get support for the solution to real problems that might or might not be related to increases in CO2. they just make a mockery of real science that is being done on real problems that face society.

Chuck says: ' most of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf WAIS is actually below sea level so it means that the ice is below the surface of the water' Well perhaps I don't know my bathtub physics but if the ice is already under water levels then all its volume is already taken into account in the sea levels. If it melts, water will fill where ice previously existed over the rock bed. Basically there will be no change in sea levels. It may even mean a slight fall in ocean levels depending on how much lower WAIS is below sea levels. Are there any other bathtub physicists out there? I just consulted my expert 16 year old son. He tells me that is correct and that ice is less dense as well so that melting ice will result in more sea water rushing in to replace the WAIS so sea levels will fall even more. Now that is a catastrophe. We might not be able to go fishing because the ramps are too high.

Some of it may be below sea level but it is sitting on rock, it is not free floating. Your bathtup physics doesn't apply.
It's frightening that after decades of reporting and debate even the most basic facts about major issues haven't been grasped by people.

If it's below sea level what does it matter what it is "sitting on"?

Somebody needs to tell these guys they have cried wolf too many times, and, now, nobody is listening.

We are lucky to have a Leslie Graham 's mild mannered criticisms and personal attacks however this is the preserve of the elite US and therest of us are the THEM
It ha always been thus with the AGW catastrophists

The Satellite images disclose that the antarctic sea ice extent continues to grow at an alarming rate & in mid April was 1,636,000 sq kms above average & all time daily records are being set,
With the recovery of the arctic sea ice extent over the past two years the total sea ice at the Poles is at record levels since satellite images
became available.
We have already read the results of of Sydney Uni.getting his Russian ship & his rescuer stuck at Christmas when dis regarding observations & relying on computer models.I would think in about two weeks time would be a good time for a physical observation for the conference.

What is "alarming" is that about 1.35 billion tonnes of land ice has been lost from Antarctica in the last 30 years. That means that more or less permanent land ice is being lost while seasonal sea ice that freezes and melts every year is increasing during the winter months.
I have noticed the cyclical processes - particularly the melting and thawing of sea ice at the poles - is frequently referred to as if they were linear processes - so when Watts proclaimed the biggest ever rate of increase in Arctic ice following the record minimum of 2012 people kept claiming "Arctic ice is growing at the fastest ever rate" even after the 2013 summer melt had set in (and despite the speed of the spring 2013 freeze, the maximum extent of ice that year was less than the year before and some 300,000sq km below the long-term average - facts that Watts never bothered to report).
In the South, sea ice melts almost completely in Summer, but it is spreading out further in winter.
In any case, the supposedly "alarming" increase in seasonal sea ice in the Antarctic winter is about 90% less than the apparently unalarming loss of Arctic sea ice during the same season (
So we are losing huge amounts of sea ice from the North and huge amounts of land ice from the South, where we are also gaining small amounts of sea ice.
Right now, the arctic sea ice has the third lowest extent ever recorded for this day of the year, 1.2 million square km below what it was at the same time in 2012, ahead of the record minimum (though that doesn't mean that this year will or will not set another record low).
Here are the facts about the two

Readers interested in an assessment of the threat of Antarctic ice melt conducted by independent scientists might like to consult the first volume of the Climate Change Reconsidered NIPCC report (Physical Science).

Both the Summary for Policymakers and the full report are available for free download from:

The second (Biological Impacts) and third (Energy, Economics & Policy) volumes of the same report are, or will shortly be, accessible at the same web URL.

They're not "independent scientists" they are all associated with the Heartland Institute, the main politically motivated climate change denial organisation, which is probably the main funding organisation for denialist propaganda. You'll notice from the author list that many of them are poorly qualified to comment on climate and/or are working for fringe denialist organisations (in some cases funded by the Heartland Institue).

'Denialist' - now that's a hilarious term when you consider those who use it. Every single one of the IPCC's predictions have failed, yet the more they fail the higher their confidence levels are that they haven't failed. I think that if you want to use the term 'denialist' then you might need to take a bit of a look in the mirror. Sceptics work with empirical evidence, as opposed to the failed prophesies of the global warming clergy which are drawn from the runestones of the failed computer models. All who point out the empirical failures of the holy computer models are held up as heretics by the witchdoctor cleric inquisitors & labelled 'deniers'.

'Denialist', that's a hoot. I think the irony is lost on those who use the name.

If an ice shelf is floating its melting will not raise sea levels. Are they referring to ice sheets moving off continental areas due to ice shelf melting or have they just forgotten simple physics?

This is Gary Wilson responding about the ice-sheet:

Q. So we know that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed before so it’s conceivable it could happen again. What is the best scientific guess for if, and when that might happen again?
A. ... the last time the Earth had a CO2 level of about 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, then that was the end solution of a prolonged earth in that state, was that the West Antarctic ice sheet retreated. In a couple of years we’re in 400 parts per million, the question then is –

Q. So we’re heading into the danger level is what you’re saying?
A. We’re certainly heading into the danger level but the question is what’s the pathway to get there? Are we going to see ... incremental increase in the climate warming ... or are there going to steps and changes and thresholds and tipping points ... .

If this catastrophe is unavoidable why then can companies buy their way out of taking responsibility, I cannot help but feel this is a rort