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What a ‘sobering’ report on Arctic ice loss means for global sea levels

Tuesday marked the release of yet another stark report detailing how the increased warming of our atmosphere is transforming the planet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s annual Arctic Report Card includes some grim news for wildlife, native communities and global sea-level rise. William Brangham talks to Dartmouth College’s Erich Osterberg about the impact of melting ice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's yet another stark report out today detailing how the increased warming of the Earth's atmosphere is transforming the planet.

    As William Brangham reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's annual Arctic Report Card has just been released, and the news for wildlife, native communities and global sea level rise is not good.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    This report shows that warming in the Arctic is having dramatic impacts now, with worse yet to come. Sea and land ice is disappearing at unprecedented rates. Permafrost is continuing to thaw, releasing more carbon and methane, which will only make warming worse.

    Fish and bird species are also suffering, and native communities are seeing their home transformed.

    Joining me now is Erich Osterberg of Dartmouth University. He's a scientist who has studied ice loss on Greenland.

    Erich, thank you very much for being here.

    I wonder if you could just give us a sense of what jumps out most at you from this report.

  • Erich Osterberg:

    Yes, I think the headline from this report is that the Arctic is in real trouble.

    If this were an annual health checkup, I think we would have to say that the Arctic is chronically sick and getting worse. And 2019 was a particularly bad year for the Arctic. We saw the second warmest temperatures that we had ever seen on record.

    And those warm temperatures led to near record levels of melting of the sea ice on the Arctic Ocean and also near record levels of melting of the glaciers on Greenland, which raises sea level.

    So, it's a really sobering report, but I have to say, it's not a very surprising report, because this is a continuation of the trends that we have been seeing happening in the Arctic for quite a few decades now, as climate change has gotten worse.

  • William Brangham:

    Your particular expertise is in ice. And as you mentioned, the ice sheet on Greenland, which I believe is the second largest structure of ice on Earth, is losing ice at an accelerating rate.

    Can you give us a sense of the scale of the loss happening there?

  • Erich Osterberg:

    Yes, it's enormous numbers, so it's hard to comprehend.

    It's about 250 billion tons of ice that gets lost from Greenland every year and goes into the ocean. And for your viewers to conceptualize that, I want them to think about a herd of elephants charging into the ocean off of Greenland.

    And in order to equal the amount of mass that gets lost from Greenland every year, you need 2,000 elephants charging into the ocean every second. So, these are enormous amounts of mass.

  • William Brangham:

    Every second?

  • Erich Osterberg:

    Every second. So, this is going right into the ocean, and it's raising sea levels around the world, which is affecting communities that live on the coastline.

  • William Brangham:

    It really is an incredibly striking and dire image you're painting.

  • Erich Osterberg:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    The warming, as I mentioned in my introduction, is also causing the permafrost to thaw.

    We know permafrost, by its name, is land that is normally permanently frozen. Why is it such a concern to the scientific community when permafrost goes from being frozen to starting to thaw?

  • Erich Osterberg:

    So, it's a concern because there's a lot of extra carbon that's stored in the permafrost. And when it's frozen, that's OK, because it means it's not in the atmosphere. And it's carbon in the atmosphere that causes the warming.

    The problem is that, as that permafrost melts, some of that carbon gets released into the atmosphere as CO2 and methane. And so this is a climate change amplifier.

    And for a long time, we have been studying, trying to figure out, on average, is there more carbon going up into the atmosphere from the permafrost? And this report is striking because it's really first time they have come out and said, yes, we believe that the permafrost is now contributing CO2 into the environment. It's now become this climate change amplifier that we feared.

    And I would say that this is really sort of tip-of-the-spear science here. I think we need a lot more research to confirm these findings. But this is something we have been worried about in the scientific community for a while now. And now we're starting to see indications that it's happening.

  • William Brangham:

    This report also touches on a lot of the downstream impacts of this warming on fish species, on bird species, on the humans that live there.

    Can you tell us a little bit about how warming is impacting them?

  • Erich Osterberg:

    Yes.

    So the report does a nice job of talking about different species, like the ivory gull, which has seen a 70 percent decline in its population. And as the oceans get warmer, we know that the fish species are migrating. These fish need cold water. And as the waters warm up with sea ice loss, they have to migrate away, and that affects the whole ecosystem.

    And it affects the fishing industry there. This is a billion-dollar fishing industry in the Bering Sea off Alaska. And so it affects that industry. And it affects the local native communities who live there on the coastline and depend on those fish for their sustenance.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Erich Osterberg of Dartmouth University, thank you very, very much.

  • Erich Osterberg:

    You're welcome. It's good to be with you.

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