Greenland’s Glaciers in Exponential Melting?

by Val Germann

The Wabash “Cannonball” train used to run through my hometown and as a little kid I would occasionally get to see it pass. The Cannonball did not slow down for our little burg and would blast through our highway crossing at about 75 miles-per-hour, much faster than any other train. We would first see it in the far distance, down the Missouri River valley, its apparent motion deceptively slow. But as it approached more closely we began to notice its speed, which would rapidly increase just before the super-express exploded down on us, only a few dozen feet away if we were closest to the signal lights. The effect was impressive, even frightening, a startling demonstration of the exponential increase in both the size and apparent velocity of a rapidly approaching object.

This effect could also be deadly, as I saw first-hand one summer afternoon as our family car approached the Wabash tracks from the river valley side. There on the front of the train station was a huge scar, with a streak of what looked like white paint running horizontally for at least ten feet. There was also another mark on that wall, a reddish one, that looked for all the world like blood.

The first scar was caused by the impact of a 1963 Cadillac automobile that had been struck by the Cannonball and flung about 100-feet through the air before hitting the wall. The second mark, the red one, was caused by the impact of two human beings, the driver and passenger of the car.

It was a simple story, really, concerning an elderly couple from out of state whose Caddy had stalled on the tracks on a very hot day. The car had air-conditioning and no doubt they had been comfortable as they cruised along. But then the car had stalled, and the Cannonball was coming.

It was far, far away as the signal bell started ringing and the elderly gentleman got out of the car to open the door for his wife. He was still helping her out as the barricades went down, closing off other traffic. The train was still far off, they must have thought, not knowing it was the Cannonball, moving nearly 80 miles-per-hour on this day, twice as fast as any other train approached a railroad crossing.

They probably could not believe it, that their lives could be crushed out so ignominously, so quickly, in a small town in Missouri and on such a bright, sunny day. But they weren’t clear of their car when the Cannonball got there and they were lifted off their feet and crushed against the train station wall, obliterated beyond recognition. They didn’t realize, until it was too late, that a train could move so fast.

And so it is today, perhaps, for the whole human race, fooling around at the world climate railroad crossing as the climate Cannonball rushes toward the signals. Are we about to witness, to our grief, another exhibition of exponentialism, one affecting the entire Earth?

It could well be and as evidence of this take a look at the quotes below, from a recent article in the Los Angeles TIMES, courtesy of a Lexington, Kentucky website. The quotes concern the Greenland ice cap, considered rock stable only a few years ago, with any melting there thought to be moving at a sluggish pace, like the Cannonball viewed from across a river valley:

The ice sheet seemed such a stolid reservoir of cold that many experts had been confident of its taking centuries for higher temperatures to work their way thousands of feet down to the base of the icecap and undermine its stability.

But then things started to change, rapidly:

By 2005, Greenland was beginning to lose more ice volume than anyone had anticipated — an annual loss of up to 52 cubic miles a year — according to more recent satellite gravity measurements released by JPL. The volume of freshwater ice dumped into the Atlantic Ocean has almost tripled in a decade.

Yes, it’s true, even the Greenland ice sheet, thousands of feet thick, seems to be responding to the rapid warming of the Earth’s polar regions. Can it be possible that a climate Cannonball is almost at the crossing? Yes, it can:

University of Texas physicist Ginny Catania pulled an ice-penetrating radar in a search pattern around the camp, seeking evidence of any melt holes or drainage crevices that could so quickly channel the hot water of global warming deep into the ice. To her surprise, she detected a maze of tunnels, natural pipes and cracks beneath the unblemished surface. “I have never seen anything like it, except in an area where people have been drilling bore holes,” Catania said.

Could it be that the Greenland ice sheet might go the way of several ice shelves in Antarctica, which broke up suddenly and while still appearing solid? Those ice shelves, so clean and white from space, were riddled with invisible, subsurface tunnels conducting meltwater to the sea. When the final collapse came, it was sudden and almost totally unexpected.

Today, the Earth’s climate signals are glowing red and the warning bells are ringing, as the world slowly gets out of its air-conditioned car and looks around. But the Cannonball is on the way, an express train that could crush all before it, and not even slow down.

Read the entire article here.

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About Val

I am a long-time teacher of science and astronomy with a strong interest in resource conservation and the environment.
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