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Greenland’s Melting Ice Nears a ‘Tipping Point’ (nytimes.com)
119 points by crispinb 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 82 comments



Greenland has about 7 metre potential sea level rise equivalent in ice sheets (which is mildly astonishing given the size of the island) and Antarctica has about 60 metres.

But even a couple of metres spells disaster for most coastal cities, and the 600mm projected rise over the next 80 years increasingly looks to be unduly optimistic.


Pretty much all of the predictions that got released to public media are unduly optimistic. They are consistently the result of the most conservative models.


By the way for anyone who hasn't come across it, https://climatefeedback.org is a valuable resource for assessing media reports of climate change studies. I've submitted this NYT story for review.


I'm waiting to see what Climate Feedback has to say about the article. Some people who deny climate change are already picking at the article, claiming it is alarmist.


I wonder if people understand that the temperature difference between frozen and unfrozen is very little. And that once that point is breached it's very hard to go back. Once the ice starts to melt then expect all of it to melt, eventually.

We've reached the melting point and we need to get ready for the consequences.


I'm not sure what you mean by "the temperature difference between frozen and unfrozen is very little". This sounds as though you are implying it is very easy to go from frozen to melted.

When ice melts to water, it absorbs a fair amount of energy without changing temperature, is my recollection of high school physics.


I think that mean that if daytime temperature in a place is 1 degree celsius, no ice will remain in the long run.

This is true if there are no seasons, but of course more ice will form in the winter. But it's still worth thinking about over the long run. You don't need 30 degrees celsius to melt ice - 1 degree will do. It will just be slower.


Correct, that's my point.


This bothers me in the same way as when people say that a 20% gain in something doesn't get you back from a 20% loss. It's technically true, but it has a fallacious flavor to me because it's based on an incorrect choice of mental anchor.

It's true that it doesn't take a significant change in temperature to melt ice, but temperature is not "what it takes" - it takes heat.


But the point is that a temperature of 1 degree celsius is constant heat which will eventually melt all the ice. That's what outdoor temperature from the sun is, right?


If we are certain the sea levels are going to rise X amount over the next Y years, why aren't people buying up all the currently cheap but soon to be waterside property? If global warming is settled science I would have expected the money to be talking by now.


If you want to say it that way, then the corresponding question is why hasn't there been a huge sell-off of waterfront properties, especially since their current value is so high and their long-term value will probably only degrade in this scenario to nothing.

A lot of people have incentive to find solutions to maintain the shoreline in some usable manner, or some facsimile thereof. Insurance companies are finding it super hard to figure out what the premiums should be for insuring this problem, and if they can't figure it out easily, how can buyers/sellers, especially in the short-term compared to long-term?


Because the US government has a history of reclaiming the beach as erosion begins happening largely because the economic gain in doing so is higher than it's current cost. I'd expect this to continue far into the future.


I'm curious why insurance companies can't at least determine some lower limit. E.g. take the most conservative estimate out there and go up from there.


That's exactly what's happening in, e.g., Miami[1]:

> A recent Harvard University study tracked the property values of more than 100,000 single-family homes across Miami going back to the early 1970s. It showed that values of homes along Miami's coastline have been dropping, while those at higher elevations are increasing.

[1] https://www.dw.com/en/miamis-affluent-climate-refugees-seek-...


I’ve tried to find that data, but it’s not entirely clear where the water lines will be... especially as this is XX years out and there may be dikes/dams built. The ROI for most investors is too far out for them to be interested right now. I was looking for my own retirement interests


There are large error margins on localized effects and time frames. Sea levels will not rise equally everywhere and in many cases local weather like rainfall, sea temperatures and air pressure will have a larger effect. Then you've got how those changes effect the local land which may suffer from more or less erosion and could now be at risk of storm surges.

You've got to get the timing right too, a property 4 meters above sea level might only be beach front for a decade before another meter of rise swallows it, to invest you'd have to assume someone would buy it at that point. There would likely be enough buildings and trees visible in the water to remind any potential buyer of their short sightedness.

Not all waterside property is equal either. There won't be time for a beach to form on your waterfront, so it wont command the sort of values that many do today. Nearby structures out in the water would make for a poor boating and fishing experience and probably give a pretty gloomy ocean view.

There is more than enough uncertainty to make it a poor investment, even if the science was 100% certain.


Because with the most extreme prediction the sea will only rise 160cm by 2100 which is really only a bit of shoreline lost for the current property owners.

It will take 1000 years of melting to meet the Hollywood style sea level rise.


The earth has potential for over 100m of sea level rise, but it wont happen at an instant. but for many places 1 meter more with a huge wave a day could already become a problem


Yes - such a slow rise can be managed in developed nations, along with some erosion. The major issue will be storm surges and other events.


Japan has been surrounding itself with huge concrete walls to fend off tsunamis.

They're obviously unsightly, but I wouldn't be surprised if other developed countries eventually adopted the same solution to sea level rise. Humanity is pretty good at building walls around itself; it's not so good at enduring a bit of inconvenience right now to prevent disaster later.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2018/mar/09/after-...


How do they let water out? Most major cities are built on rivers/harbors, not letting them drain into or be connected to the ocean would cause a swathe of other problems.

In many places the ground itself is quite porous (not sure on the statistics of how many major cities), so barriers like that can't work unless you build them down to the bedrock.


If there's a river, a large section of it must be surrounded with a wall, too. New Orleans did exactly that. Many other coastal cities already have levees around their rivers to prevent seasonal flooding, and there's even a whole country in Europe that is famous for being below sea level, so there's nothing new here. The walls are not even noticeable when there are even taller buildings nearby. Smaller streams, leakage, and sewage can be pumped out mechanically.

The harbor will also have to remain outside of the wall. In the event of a tsunami, any boat left in the harbor will be toast. It's a cost that the city is willing to bear in order to protect the majority of its residents from an existential threat.

If what you're worried about is sea level rise, not a tsunami, then the harbor is not a problem at all. You just build the harbor higher so it stays above the new sea level. The massive concrete backside of the harbor could even form a section of the wall.


Markets move one quarter at a time. This has long since been established.


I wonder this a lot. I would have assumed some places would be highly susceptible and we’d hear about people losing their homes and property to coastal encroachment. I haven’t heard anything about it. Seems odd.


Most sane people build at least a few feet above sea level, so there's a margin of safety at the current sea level.

These houses will have to be rebuilt anyway by the time the sea level rises enough to be a problem and the retirees who currently occupy them have passed away. I suppose the next generation will simply build a few feet higher. Meanwhile, the government keeps pouring new sand onto beaches to make up for erosion. Waterfront properties in Florida do get flooded from time to time, but most people are content to blame more immediate causes such as poor drainage systems.

We as a species are remarkably good at pretending that nothing is happening -- this quarter, this year, during my term in office, or within my lifetime.


Seems odd if you never heard of the Gell Mann amnesia effect.


It seems towards the end like one of the paper's authors demurs:

> “I take issue with using ‘tipping point’ to describe the accelerating mass loss Greenland is experiencing,”

But then:

> Dr. Trusel agreed that talk of tipping points could discount the humans’ ability to mitigate global warming. because “it makes it appear as if we have passed, or soon will pass, the point of no return.” She said she saw reasons for hope.

And it becomes clear that the 'reasons for hope' are vague & wild misty-eyed theoretical dreams, against all of the prevailing trends and evidence, of global political change. Even scientists must believe in miracles, it seems.


So, we as a society have a serious issue to deal with. Putting a deadline on the issue will push a portion of the population into the camp of "Let's wait and see if this is actually the case" when they are proved right we'd be unable to act, or, if luck was on our side, and some solution was still available then that portion of the population would disbelieve the urgency since one deadline had already passed.

Setting a deadline provides no wins for enacting meaningful change.


I'm not sure what your 'deadline' refers to, but in any case the relevant deadline would be 'critically urgent'.

We've had this 'serious issue' to deal with for 40 years or more. It is still technically feasible to do something, but the window of political possibility has clearly passed.


I was referring to the existence of a "Tipping Point" psychologically points of no return usually don't have the motivational effect we'd naively assume they do. Generally viewing something as a constantly increasing danger is more motivational.

I am... hopelessly optimistic... but with that said I feel like climate change awareness has really increased since the last presidential election. My terrible optimism is fueling my hope that it'll play a more central role in our next round of policy pushing.


OK got it - misunderstood you. I'm not entirely sure I agree in the sense that if people really feel an imminent danger they can pull together and make sacrifices. But even when phrased as a 'tipping point', climate collapse is just not visceral enough to produce that kind of reaction. Personally I think we're toast (though I'd forgo the 'pessimist' label).


When I was a kid we took a field trip to the museum of natural history in New York City and watched the IMAX documentary “Antarctica”.

It was a long time ago. What I remember the most was being in awe of the existence of this place where ice and snow existed in such enormous quantities, that it felt like a wilderness that stretched on forever.

One of the side effects of getting older is that the world seems smaller. Particularly growing up in the past couple of decades, during the Information Age.

But the idea that these vast, frozen parts of the planet may someday disappear — in my lifetime no less — that’s a hard one to process.


Does it also make you upset that it used to be a rainforest before the ice came and destroyed it all?

I not trying to be sarcastic, just thinking about it.


Ha — no, it doesn’t. Nor am I anxious about the sun eventually consuming the earth. But I’m admittedly sentimental of the ‘Goldilocks’ balance of ecosystems we evolved alongside: soft meadows, cool woodlands, gentle rains, etc.

Edit: But, I suppose my original comment was more about a sentimentalism of the planet the way I imagined it as a child.


I want to see (and go) to tropical beaches in Canada and Antarctica!


This is probably the wrong way to be thinking about this, admittedly, but... would investing in land in Greenland be pretty smart. Well, I suppose if you knew you would live to be 100. But still... https://www.quora.com/How-much-money-do-you-think-it-would-t... $100M, Some billionaire (Musk, Bezos, Gat etc.) could buy it maybe. I some guy like Peter Theil waved $1B in Denmark's nose, just an interesting thought.


The international community isn't going to let denmark sell land they essentially stole from the natives. The time for denmark to have sold greenland was after ww2 when we offered to buy it from them. Now, most people view greenland as an independent country ( though greenland is still part of the danish kingdom ). Greenland will continue to be a quasi-independent protectorate of the US.

Also, about 63% of the earth's landmass ( 70% if we ignore antarctica ) is located in the northern hemisphere. Much of that is siberia, alaska and canada. If you are looking to buy land, it'll be far smarter to buy in these areas or the frigid upper midwest. These areas are going to be habitable and farmable far before greenland will ever be.


I didn't know that "The USA Virgin Islands, that was bought from Denmark in 1917..." - the US has a long history of buying land from other countries.


Huh. Suddenly America's ability to buy land in Civilization V makes a whole lot more sense.


US bought Louisiana (look it up, it was a huge tract of land), Florida, Alaska, etc


A good business move ever since land is no longer made!



Buy future farmland in Russia or Canada instead.

If I was Russia I'd be doing everything I could to undermine climate change prevention. They have a lot to gain. On top of an increase in farmland, they'll also get access to currently inaccessible oil and gas. As a bonus their enemies will reap the negative impacts of climate change.


> If I was Russia I'd be doing everything I could to undermine climate change prevention

Honestly? You would? You want to see vast amounts of suffering for your own gain?

> They have a lot to gain.

Well possibly if they want to live as survivalists. Perhaps some Russians do, but I've only known a couple of Muscovites who would barely know a potato from a turnip. The international order (such as it is) isn't remotely in the ballpark of being resilient enough to survive the convulsions climate change is going to cause.


> Honestly? You would? You want to see vast amounts of suffering for your own gain?

No. But I'm not a nation state who wants to reclaim its former glory as a world super power. Hence, "if I was Russia". I didn't say "if I was myself"...

> Well possibly if they want to live as survivalists. Perhaps some Russians do, but I've only known a couple of Muscovites who would barely know a potato from a turnip. The international order (such as it is) isn't remotely in the ballpark of being resilient enough to survive the convulsions climate change is going to cause.

They wont live as survivalists if they have the worlds most productive farmland. Anyway I doubt climate change is going to render the world inhabitable to humans or decimate the global economy. We'll adapt we always do. There'll just be winners and losers. Most will lose and there will be hardships. The natural ecosystems will be fucked but in the end we'll still be here doing just fine.


> No. But I'm not a nation state ..

Fair enough. Though in context you do seem to be promoting it as an investment strategy, which still seems a tad sociopathic to me.

> We'll adapt we always do.

If by 'we' you mean H Sapiens - true so far, but then again modern humans are very recent, so there's little history to go on.

If by 'we' you mean our specific civilisation - shakier ground. Many have ended. So can ours. Based on how small edge fluctuations have been shown to create huge perturbations (eg. the 2015 European crisis resultant on a tiny influx of refugees), it's clear our global civilisation's range of dynamic stability is very narrow. It's certainly unlikely to survive ecosystem collapses, the death of the oceans (already well advanced), and the breakdown of a stable climate. Multiple overlapping wars consequent on this chaos are the most likely proximate cause of the final global collapse.


> Fair enough. Though in context you do seem to be promoting it as an investment strategy, which still seems a tad sociopathic to me.

I was just providing a potentially more lucrative investment than Greenland. That said I would by future farmland if i had the kind of money that could wait for 50 years for a return.

> If by 'we' you mean H Sapiens

I was referring to homo sapiens global civilization, not a specific civilization. This civilization has survived terrible wars in the past. I agree that its range of dynamic stability is very narrow for optimal performance. But disagree that falling outside that range triggers collapse. I think it is a much more adaptive and fault tolerant system than you believe it is. It may be damaged by easily but it fixes things relatively quickly.

By the way i didn't down vote you. I'm enjoying the banter. And I am very much in support of curbing emissions to prevent further warming.


> This civilization has survived terrible wars in the past

While that's true, I don't think any past war is remotely comparable to a 7-12 billion-strong human population fighting to maintain unrealistic material consumption levels whilst ecosystems continue to collapse.

Only time will tell. The one thing we can be sure about re predictions on this scale is that our likelihood estimates are wrong.

> By the way i didn't down vote you

No worries - I actually wouldn't have noticed as I don't use the voting system on comments. The 'sociopathic' word might have merited it. Perhaps a bit sharp. Or maybe not - I think our 'civilisation' promotes much sociopathy as mainstream. Few of us can in practise be free of that.


I upvoted the whole comment chain :) I love the high quality discussion that hackernews fosters

to chime in: Russia may want to heat up the world, but would that not result in having to defend their borders from a mass migration inland?

the sociopathic part might not the global warming, rather denying the refugees entrance to your country, forcing them to "drown"

I ponder: may COLD rank next to water, air, food, as precious global resources?


You missed the biggest problem for Russia which is the threat of being a landlocked country. Global warming would change this for them. They do have a lot to gain. I can guarantee you, when it comes down to it politicians represent a plutocracy who does not give a shit about you. This is the reason for alarmism and urgency on global warming. World power.


Tundra will not make very productive farmland due to poor soil quality.


> This is probably the wrong way to be thinking about this, admittedly, but... would investing in land in Greenland be pretty smart

Probably not. It won't be completely ice free for at least a century and probably several, so you'll be dead by the time you see the results. After that the land will be bedrock and probably not much use to anyone. Even a poorly performing indexed fund would probably be a better investment.


Well, land around the Greenland coast where existing Greenland towns are will sink beneath the waves as they're not that high in elevation. I also recall reading that the center of Greenland has sunk hundreds of feet below sea level too.


National Geographic thinks its melting 4x as fast..

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/01/greel...


SMDH at how they see fit to include, in the second-to-last paragraph, a scientist calling the words "tipping point" inaccurate and irresponsible... and then still made it their headline.


It is inaccurate and irresponsible for you to suggest that the scientist in question used the words inaccurate and irresponsible. What she said was, "I take issue with using ‘tipping point’ to describe the accelerating mass loss Greenland is experiencing,” because “it makes it appear as if we have passed, or soon will pass, the point of no return.”

At worst, she said she "takes issue with" with the "tipping point" phrase, which is not remotely the same as saying it's inaccurate and irresponsible.

Furthermore, her "issue with" it appears to be related to a political concern that the phrase will sap people's sense of agency. It's not entirely clear.

(As far as her reasons for thinking it's too soon to give in to despair is, all the reporter gives us is, "She said she saw reasons for hope." There is zero additional information provided as to what those reasons might be.)


If someone asked me to summarize what you just said, I would say the scientist described a “tipping point” as inaccurate and irresponsible.

Inaccurate because she said it’s claiming something that isn’t true.

And irresponsible because it will sap the political will to do something about it.


True, though without greater specificity I, at least, interpreted the original comment to mean that the scientist believed the phrase "tipping point" was overly alarmist.


You're right, that his use of "innacurate and irresponsible" is sensationalist. But he is right in claiming that this is a bullshit clickbait headline.

The scientist literally told her that the entire concept of a tipping point did not apply here. That gives a totally different sense of urgency to the title.

>it makes it appear as if we have passed...return

The scientist is concerned over the literal definition of a turning point.


However, the same scientist characterizes the research as showing that “a little bit of a nudge is going to have an outsized impact” on the Greenland ice pack, which is basically the paradigmatic definition of a “tipping point.” She objects to the term because it could discourage effective policies that could slow or otherwise mitigate climate change. Not a bad reason, but one rooted in politics, not science per se.


I really wish scientists wouldn’t do this as it completely undermines the data. The opponents of doing something about climate change jump on these political statements to show scientists are somehow making up the risks to keep themselves employed. Just the science please.


I disagree, just the science was attempted for quite some time but science has been derided in American culture lately, people don't accept facts and so a more emotional approach is required to break through to the public.


Just because something hasn’t worked doesn’t mean that it is a good idea for science to get into politics. Once science is seen as just a wing of one political side then it is doomed.

There is no evidence that more emotion will help get the political support required to do anything. Using emotion just enable your opponent to more easily block out your message.

I do agree that we need to change approaches. We aren’t going to win by fighting the fossil fuel owners head on (they are too rich and powerful), but by buying them out. Let’s stop with efforts that effectively steal their assets (i.e. forcing them to keep the carbon in the ground) and start by buying the carbon off them at market rates and then leaving it in the ground.


Australia's much the same. Our novelty Prime Minister even brought a chunk of coal into Parliament to demonstrate convincingly how nice and safe and clean it is.

No coincidence that both nations are big fossil fuel producers.


But in fact what climate scientists are doing here, and what they're doing in general, is leaning hard to downplay the science, because they're afraid of being described as chicken little or afraid of terrifying the public into inaction.

Scientists are politically leaning on the data to downplay what the science shows.

Things are bad, and getting worse fast (and faster each year than the year before).


Totally. I know a couple of climate scientists here in Aus, and a number of ecosystem experts on three continents. They are personally far more alarmed than would be indicated by the mild statements the universities (and IPCC) lean on them to make. There's a lot of chatter amongst them of existential dread and depression. They painstakingly follow the data, struggle for research funding, work long hours, and still get excoriated by the fossil fuel industry and its leagues of useful idiots.


As long as politicians insist on playing science, scientists must play politics. If we could have a nice clean separation that would be great, but we’re far from it. If scientists don’t get political then they’ll just be trampled.


But if they do get political they ruin the perception of their objectivity. We have very few climate scientists and many other people who can be politicians.


Politicians have already ruined the perception of objectivity for climate scientists. They have nothing to lose now.


Tipping point implies a hard boundary of "too far," making politicians believe it is someone else's problem until we reach that point.

What we have is an accelerating process that will soon pass beyond our ability to absorb, deflect, or survive. The words absolutely affect the thinking for how to deal with the problem. The words also affect the arguments one will have to overcome in order to act. (Not counting the head in the sand argument of "no it isn't".)


Presenting science to politicians is hard. Sometimes it comes down to using the right words to explain something. Even something seemingly basic such as expressimg confidence or certainly on a non-numeric scale is tricky. I vaguely remember that studies have been performend to find out how to best map probabilities to natural language expressions like "very certain" so that people without scientific training get the right idea.


It's against HN guidelines to insinuate a commenter didn't read the article, but I'd at least suggest you read it again. She only pulls back from tipping point on the basis that political action could head it off. This is identical to saying that on a BAU basis, we are approaching a tipping point.


Aw... (Stopping by later and seeing this at the top)

SMDH at myself, too, for giving in to the temptation to just blat out a quick frustration despite knowing this is exactly the kind of nerd-sniping that can get us commentariat more worked up than the actual issue.

Sorry for the noise, folks. I mean, the meta isn't total noise, but remember to spend focus on the actual climate change too, shall we?


I'm not a climate change denier, but the New York times has become a pretty trashy magazine. They're like the MSNBC of print.


Well it is complicated and there are no easy solutions regarding the terminology and psychology. The scientific community and press need to indicate urgency without causing despair/surrender.


This is a rare case where the title is underselling the drama of the article as we’ve likely already passed a tipping point.


SMDH == Shaking My Damn Head


I think it is “darn.”


Reading this article with this song in the background https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f6aPzCyJD7o x10s the effect.


Hopefully something will be done about the nuclear waste before the ice melts and exposes it.


See https://climateandsecurity.org/2018/02/20/emerging-risks-mel...

I've tried to get the article by Jeff Colgan, but MIT Press won't let me. But I think that this is mainly toxic chemical waste. PCBs etc. Not nuclear waste, or at least not high-level waste.




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