Make no mistake - the earth is warming. I’m not going to get into the politics of global warming here, this isn’t the place for that.



Global Warming, Ice Sheets and Sea Level Rise


The greenhouse effect, from the Jason project

Make no mistake – the earth is warming. I’m not going to get into the politics of global warming here, this isn’t the place for that. Whether you believe that the rise of global atmospheric carbon dioxide gas concentrations (CO2) and subsequent warming is a direct result of man-made activities or not, the indisputable facts are: 1) the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are higher than they have been in hundreds of thousands of years, and 2) the rate with which they have risen is unprecedented in the recent climate record of our planet.

Think of Earth floating in the cold vacuum of space as if it were a glass-walled greenhouse full of plants in a very cold, dry desert environment. Sunlight hits the greenhouse, and only some of it’s heat rays escape back out into the desert. The glass of the greenhouse traps some of the heat and keeps it in, warming the air in the greenhouse.

The climate of our planet behaves in a similar fashion, in that the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere work like the glass of the greenhouse, trapping some of the sun’s heat. The higher the concentrations of the gases, the thicker the glass and the more efficient it is at keeping heat in and warming the greenhouse. Earth’s greenhouse gases are, in order of abundance, water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone. Carbon dioxide is the most important, as there are direct correlations between the levels of CO2 in the air and the global mean temperature.

Global surface temps and CO2 levels, from

Whales know that ~70% of the surface of the earth is covered in water. Penguins know that about 10%, or six million square miles is covered in ice. For now. Those values will change as the earth continues to warm and the ice sheets melt at an accelerated rate. There are three major repositories of ice left on the earth – the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, and various small mountain glaciers and ice caps. Between Greenland and Antarctica, they contain 99% of the fresh water on our planet.

Just how much ice is sitting in Antarctica and Greenland? The answer is staggering. The volume of ice in Antarctica is around 30 million cubic kilometers (7.2 million cubic miles), spread over around 14 million square km, or an area about the same size as the United States and Mexico combined (5.4 million square miles). About 2.2 million cubic kilometers of this ice lies trapped in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (530,000 cubic miles). It is so massive that is has depressed the rocks on which it lies by around 0.5 to 1 km (Anderson, 1999). Up north, the Greenland ice sheet has a volume of ~2.9 million km3 (695,000 cubic miles).

What would happen if observed trends in CO2 levels and global temperature rise continue or even accelerate and these ice sheets melted? One recent calculated value states  that melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet will raise global sea level by 3.3 m (Bamber et al., 2009). If  the ice in Greenland were to melt, this would add an additional 6-7 m to mean sea level (Houghton et al., 2001). If the entire Antarctic ice sheet melted, sea level could rise as much as 70 m (200 feet). That would not be good for us humans.

Check out the incredible footage of glaciers in Greenland and Alaska melting, by Dr. James Balog of the Extreme Ice Survey:


Some people might think that a few meters of sea level rise isn’t a lot, especially when tides and waves are on the order of tens of meters. But the average sea level is a whole different beast. A rise of even 5 meters will have HUGE, global consequences on billions of people. Entire countries will be wiped off the earth, islands will disappear beneath the waves, and global coastline geography will change forever. Check out this interactive sea-level rise map:

Here’s what San Francisco would look like with a global mean sea level rise of 5m, just think of all that new waterfront real estate along I-5 in Stockton:

The San Francisco Bay Area shoreline with a 5m global sea level rise (from

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the Adirondack mountains, and in that post I included a model sketch of the layout of ancient continents. In that sketch, the seas and continents looked very different than they do today. Over the span of geologic time, continents drift, the climate fluctuates between warm periods and ice ages, and continental ice sheets come and go. Climate change is a natural process, and it has occurred hundreds of times through the long history of Earth. What’s happening right now has happened before, long before humans were around, in fact, just 21,000 years ago we were in the grips of an ice age, and sea levels have risen 120 meters since then to their present levels.

So what’s the big deal, you might ask? The big deal is that the change we are in the midst of right now is happening at an unprecedented rate, and a whole lot of us humans live at the coast. Take a look at this graph of global average temperature – notice how the far right side value (closer to the present) skyrockets upwards way higher than it has in the last 400,000 years, and way faster than it has in the last 1,000 years.

Average temperatures and CO2 levels, from

Most people would agree that this is a direct result of man-made greenhouse gas levels rising during the industrial revolution and beyond into the present day – there is a nearly perfect correlation between CO2 level rise since the industrial revolution and the upward climb of global average temperatures.

Here’s some resources to learn more about global warming. Read the evidence for yourself and make up your own mind. I may be biased due to my scientific background, but I think we’re careening down a dangerous path, at the end of which lies a very different earth, one in which the coastlines will be very different than they are today, and one that could potentially be devoid of any winter snow in the United States….

Average temperatures in the American West, from

Further reading:

A really interesting article about Dr. Charles Keeling, the scientist who created the instruments that have provided the longest-running continuous measurements of atmospheric Co2 levels on Mauna Loa volcano in Hawai`i:

The role of the cryosphere in sea level change:

Melting threat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and risk to US coastal cities:

Climate change in Mountain Ecosystems:

Current CO2 levels and trends back in time:

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  • this Turd

    Run…. there is a giant Gostbusters state puff marshmallow
    AL GORE running unofficial now!

    And BTW – I hate the Mountain Due Ad all always popping up. it is PISSING ME OFF so bad i can not come up with anything more wittier then the above comment

  • fedup

    Fact, as sea salt concentrations decrease due to added water from melting ice caps = less convection of sea water = decreased pacific currents and decreased gulf stream movement and those drive weather patterns.
    Salty water will bring warm water to the poles. Water with less salt has less convection.
    When that conveyer slows the poles will freeze faster and balance will shift to cooling off the planet.
    I’m not a scientist, have no Phd and have no college education and can see this as happening.
    Didn’t have computer models to look at or misinform my data.

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  • Marker

    to the moderator – you can edit my post as it is pretty long and my second sentence should have said ‘could’ not couldn’t…

    food for thought:
    if mankinds CO2 emmissions since the industrial revolution were thought of as a single volcano, slowly erupting for about a hundred years and picking up pace, how big of a volcano would it be? To have no measureable effect it would have to be a pretty small volcano.. perhaps this thought experiment could help frame the argument

  • Marker

    Oy yoy – I just read this article and the comments which are all good in the sense that it furthers discussion on the issue but lets focus on critical thinking, facts, data, causation, and correlation, rather than attacking individuals.. I find it so frustrating to understand why folks can’t at least entertain the thought that our burning ancient stores of carbon from the past since the industrial revolution couldn’t have a significant effects on the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
    Why do folks have such difficulty entertaining the idea that humanity may have had a significant influence on the climate? To be fair lets look at the other side too – conversely when i entertain the idea that mankind hasn’t had a significant effect on CO2 levels in the atmosphere AND the oceans (lets not forget ocean acidification here) since the industrial revolution, the logic simply doesn’t appear to support that hypothesis. We have, and continue to release primitive carbon into the atmosphere which appears to be accelerating the natural climate change effects that do occur when you look at the earth in the timescale of tens of thousands of years. Yes there have been times of great volcanism and natural greenhouse gas emmissions, and yet if one believes that CO2 levels are higher than they have been in over 100,000 years, and the rate of change of CO2 (the acceleration of CO2 levels if you wish) in the air and oceans is unprecedented when compared to our recent geologic past, this does appear to be truly alarming. I repeat.. truly alarming.
    Think about it – we live in a time where conditions in the atmoshphere and oceans haven’t been like present in over 100,000 years (if one believes the data).
    Wow, talk about a special time we live in.. pretty special whether one thinks its good or bad so just remember as the pH of our oceans keeps lowering due to increasing levels of carbonic acid that plankton and coral don’t like it. Fish don’t like living in soda pop either. Ok done my rant… be nice ok?

  • Tim Konrad

    whether you believe in “GLOBAL WARMING” or not all this man-made crap in the air can’t be a good for mother earth or the human monkeys living on it.

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  • Will

    You’re forgetting that warmer does not necessarily mean things would be worse. Most living things, flora and fauna thrive in warm temperatures and not in cold ones (we see the most abundance of life at the equator and not in the arctic. Furthermore, a “warm” climate allows what usually inhabitable places (such as Greenland and Michigan) become places that have thriving societies (e.g. the vikings in Greenland). Furthermore, we know the Dolomites were once under the ocean, North America once had camels and the Sahara desert was once a wet climate that buried under an ocean. Climate changes all the time, it may not be all bad. I thought evolution was supposed to take care of this, or are we as a globe devolving?

    • JT

      Will – Good points. The problem / difference is the RATE of change we are currently experiencing. Those other climate epochs you mention took tens of thousands to millions of years to manifest at a global scale – so evolution did in fact have time to “keep up” with the changes. Additionally, mass extinctions did in fact occur during many of those periods of glaciations or warming. The point with “climate change” (or “global warming” – call it what you will) is that a) the rate of change we are currently witnessing and predicting is extremely rapid, and b) it will SEVERELY affect our human existence. Yes, evolution is constantly occurring and will continue to do so, but remember that natural selection is a fundamental part of that process. The whole point of this is that we humans do not want to be naturally selected!!!

  • Geraldo

    Dr Kaye- a few questions…

    During the time when this one glacier retreated, were there other glaciers around the world that expanded?

    Is it not true that various glaciers are constantly expanding and contracting… all over the earth, over a period of years?

    Is it not true there were periods before human existence when there were much higher concentrations of CO2?

    Is it not true that there were periods during human existence but prior to the industrial revolution when the earth was much warmer than it is currently?

    In your words… If colder and snowier winters are “widely” recognized as “symptoms” of a warming climate, are warmer and less snowy winters a symptom of a cooling climate? Can you elaborate on this?

  • ronron

    The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there has always been climate change. ALWAYS. Unless you believe that the earth is only 6000 years old, you probably realize that the earth once had an atmosphere that consisted of Hydrogen and Helium. Over the billions of years, there have been multiple changes from sub-freezing to molten surfaces. The Earth’s climate has never known stasis: which is why the term “climate change” is disingenuous.
    You will probably note that the term “climate change” has replaced the old term “global warming” due to the fact that there hasn’t been a global rise in temperature from 1998-2008. This is blamed on pollution from Asia for some strange reason.

    If anyone, liberal or conservative wants to talk about reduction of resource consumption, recycling, and re-using products to their maximum efficiency, I am totally on board. It makes good business sense, and will result in the best outcome for everyon in the long run. However, we need to stop focusing on the pseudo-science that is climatology.

    Climatology is no science at all because the conclusion is driving the research. It is the equivalent of tobacco companies doing research on the effects of cigarrettes. Meteorology IS a science and still can rarely predict what can happen next week. For someone to suggest what s going to happen years from now is just silly.

    Further, the focus on CO2 is bunk. While ice core samples from years ago may have lower concentrations and lower temperatures, is irrelevant. We should all remember from basic statistics that “Correlation is not causation”. Correlation is not causation. Correlation is not causation. There are literally millions of other variables that play into the equation from methane (which is a greenhouse gas 6 times more powerful than CO2), solar activity, volcanoes, and large forrest fires. Think about it for a moment. CO2 is produced from decomposing biomass. Does biomass accelerate or decelerate with higher temperature? Based on your answer, if the two factors of temp and CO2 are correlated, what causes what? The more reasonable answer is that the temperature rise caused the rise in CO2 and NOT vice versa.

    Back in the 1980s hippies were screaming that we were all going to be cooked to death because the greenhouse gas would get us. Then in 2002, Al Gore said we’d all be swimming and needed to head for the hills. Now that none of that has happened, hippy-pseudo-scientists are saying that “climate change is going to get more erratic. I’m calling BS. While some glaciers are melting, there are many others on Greenland, Antarctica, Icland and even Mt. Shasta that are EXPANDING.

    The erruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Indonisia caused a drop in global temperature of 1.2 degrees. Man had nothing to do with that. We are not in control. Forrest fires and Volcanoes put more CO2 into the atmosphere than men ever can. While we must strive to be good stewards of the earth the REAL inconvenient truth is that we are not in control. On the timeline of Earth’s history, human life is a mere blip on the timeline. There hasn’t been a rise in temperature in ten years even with the rise in CO2 production. If the hippies are right and erratic weather shifts the snow away from Tahoe to somewhere else, I’ll move to where the snow is and you gapers can watch me rip the shit out of those lines too!

    • Tim Starr

      Ronron, excellent points. I hold many of the same views as you after lots of critical thinking and some research.

      Trying to “Save The Planet” is nonsense. Earth, as you have said, has been through many various phases and levels of friendliness to complex life. Saving our own asses and the biodiversity that we humans know today may be within people’s agenda but the Earth has always been in a state of change and to try to “freeze” what we know and expect of the climate and biodiversity is silly.

      That said I don’t like littering or the wasteful lifestyles we all lead to varying degrees but you gotta have a little fun and sometimes that takes it’s toll over time. To jump topics the unfortunate reality is that sustainability becomes increasingly difficult to achieve as population continues to grow since each person’s impact must become smaller and smaller…


    • Enrique

      I have also performed extensive research on this topic, and discovered that convincing scientific evidence exists on both sides. Since I didn’t know what to believe, I began researching who is funding the scientists on each side. That is where the truth is revealed: I found the vast majority of skeptic scientists receive large paychecks from oil and gas companies, where as scientists who support the man-made climate change theory are funded by science organizations. If that fact alone doesn’t speak to you enough, then you’re just ignorant.

      If you’re not convinced then watch this video. This nerdy guy makes an amazing point that explains why it’s absolutely imperative to take action to prevent climate change:

  • JT

    @ ratherride – you want to label – then you are a dumb ass conservative. Climate change = larger extremes in precipitation, more frequent “catastrophic’ (extreme) weather events, and localized areas / incidences of increased precipitation. For California, droughts will become more frequent and longer, but high snowfall years can and will occur. However, the long term trend is for shorter winters, and overall warmer temps, which will result in more RAIN and LESS SNOW in the next century. Beyond our selfish desire for good skiing / riding, this has long term and very serious consequences in terms of water storage in California, which is based on capturing snowmelt runoff in the spring. There will be less water for human consumption, and more that runs off as floodwaters. The OVERALL TREND = longer droughts, more floods, less snow, more rain, water shortages. If you really want to educate yourself – start here: – and stop listening to Glenn Beck…

    • ratherride

      Dumb ass? really? a little emotional? ok. first, the artticle title had the word “Global Warming” in it, and I thought that was funny because those words have not been used much since Al Gore was dicredited after lying to the world and walking away with a nobel prize. I also thought that it was funny that in the beginning of the article, the good ‘DR.” says “I’m not going to get into the politics of global warming here, this isn’t the place for that.” but its obvious what the guy is all about. Thats fine, I dont care what you or he think,. You might even be correct, mabey man has caused all of this, mabey we are responsible, there is some logic there. unfortunately, there is no PROOF! i dont believe it, but if someone shows me proof, ill admit i was wrong, and wont have a problem doing so. Melting ice and snow is not proof that man fucked up, its proof that the climate is changing. You have proof of effect, none of cause. the DR said it himself, “What’s happening right now has happened before, long before humans were around” so really, unless you have found said proof, you and I have no argument…. that is except the Glenn Beck thing. I dont listen to or watch that guy at all, I think he is a lot of what is wrong with conservatives today

      • JT

        @ ratherride – Sorry – I apologize for that. I do get emotional about this because I am frustrated that so many are so skeptical in the face of truly insurmountable evidence that this is a global issue, with scary, far-reaching implications and long term consequences, and we are about to get our asses handed to us…. wake up people….

  • JT

    @ Joel – yes time lapse in the summer OVER MULTIPLE YEARS. And it is not just “ice melting” – it is glaciers retreating, indicating a long -term trend of glacial ice reduction. Go to the website and actually look at the sequences / photos. Then draw your conclusions…

  • ratherride

    whats funny is, you are pushing the liberal global warming agenda (you say you arent going to, but you do) but last week you guys had an article about how the 2011/2012 would likely be super cold and snowy, make up your mind dude. Flip-floppy liberals

    • Dr. Kaye

      I might also add that colder and snowier winters are widely recognized as a symptom of a warning climate.

      • Jim

        If it all means more pow, I can’t help but see the silver lining. What do you think, Shane’s fuzzy friend?

      • doc

        This is my favorite argument, that it causes “extremes” so that means you can blame global warming on anything! Less snow? Global warming. More snow? Global warming. Horrible winter? Global warming. If you can’t disprove a theory its not science.

  • Joel

    So they took time-lapse photos of a glacier in the summer time and were shocked to see ice actually melting? Go back in the winter and you’ll see something different.

    • Dr. Kaye

      The Alaskan timelapses shot by James Balog are one image an hour for two years. I’m pretty sure two years includes two winters.

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