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If a Tree Falls...?

April 02, 2008

Antartica_desprendimientoThe extraordinary image to the right shows the fractured edge of the Wilkins Ice Shelf, which abuts the southwestern part of the Antarctic Peninsula (the tail-like feature of the continent that juts northward toward Cape Horn and South America).

(Image courtesy National Snow and Ice Data Center.)

The shelf, a rectangular sheet of ice covering roughly 5,000 square miles (about the size of Connecticut), began to collapse in late February and by last week had lost 160 square miles of ice, or about 3 percent of its mass.

"Block after block of ice is just tumbling and crumbling into the ocean," said Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, and the man who first noticed something unusual was happening. "The shelf is not just cracking off and a piece goes drifting away, but totally shattering. These kinds of events, we don't see them very often. But we want to understand them better because these are the things that lead to a complete loss of the ice shelf."

The collapse of the Wilkins shelf had been predicted as early as 1993 by the British Antarctic Survey. "In 1993, we predicted that this was going to be a vulnerable ice shelf," the survey's David Vaughan told the Christian Science Monitor. "But we got the times scales completely wrong. We were saying thirty years at the time, and now it's happened within fifteen."

Indeed, according to the Monitor, two of the ten ice shelves along the Antarctic Peninsula have vanished within the past thirty years, and another five have lost between 60 percent and 92 percent of their original extent. Because the ice shelves are already floating on water, their disintegration is not expected to cause a rise in sea levels. But most scientists attribute the accelerating loss of shelf ice in Antarctica to warmer air and ocean temperatures caused by climate warming.

Meanwhile, the deafening silence from Congress in response to mounting evidence of dramatic, long-term climate change has prompted the Alliance for Climate Protection, which is chaired by Nobel laureate and former Vice President Al Gore, to launch a three-year, $300 million campaign aimed at mobilizing Americans to push for aggressive reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Said to be one of the most ambitious and costly public advocacy campaigns in U.S. history, the "We Can Solve It" (or "We," for short) campaign will combine online mobilization efforts with nationwide television, print, radio, and online advertising; the ultimate goal is to engage ten million supporters in a collective call for action against global warming. Many of you probably saw the segment on 60 Minutes a few days ago in which a relaxed but serious Gore (who is said to be contributing millions of dollars of his own money to the campaign) and wife Tipper explained why this kind of effort at this particular moment was the right way to go. And while my own view is that $300 million is just a drop in the bucket of what is needed to seriously address the climate change problem, it's a start.

Which doesn't mean everyone is dancing in the streets. In a post on her blog, Alison Fine complained about the slick, glossy quality of the "We" Web site. But what really made her cranky was what, for lack of a better word, one might call the smugness of the campaign, at least in its initial phase. "In a truly disempowering sense," wrote Fine

the We campaign already has it all figured out — and all we, the robotic consumer people who don’t look as attractive as the “presenters” have to do is click here, buy this, give them our name and email address and the names and email addresses of our nearest and dearest and the problem will be solved! Hey, ad exec. people making millions of dollars, we regular people may have some ideas of what to do, who to talk to, how to organize ourselves that hasn’t been focused grouped and put into pale colors yet!

Now, that's a legitimate criticism -- especially coming from someone who has labored long and hard in the advocacy and social media trenches. But I say, let's cut Al and his team a little slack. Climate change is a problem of, well...global proportions, and it's going to take millions of people and billions (if not trillions) of dollars and many, many approaches to solve. If Gore is willing to contribute $2.7 million out of his own pocket (or whatever the figure is) to get a real conversation started, more power to him.

What do you think? Is the We campaign a good use of private dollars in the fight against global warming, or is it already a day late and a dollar short? And what about global warming? Is it a crisis -- or just another over-hyped "problem" conjured up by a sensation-addicted media? We're running a poll on that very question over at PND. To vote, visit: http://foundationcenter.org/pnd/.

-- Mitch Nauffts

Comments

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I believe there is some evidence that there is recently discovered volcanic activity in that area that may have contributed to the ice-shelf fracture.

If Al Gore or other advocacy groups want to spend private money tilting at this particular windmill, more power to them. But I personally remain unconvinced that global warming is any more of a threat than other global threats we were supposed to get worked up about- global cooling (remember that one? How'd that work out for us?) the overpopulation "bomb", the hole in the ozone.


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