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Imagine The Cost If Unpredictable Weather Affected Food Production

There was a fascinating and troubling paper published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science describing revelations from the study of a re-discovered 60 year old ice core from Greenland that spent some time at the University of Buffalo.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the US Army initiated Project Iceworm, a plan to carve a nuclear missile base called Camp Century into the ice sheet just 800 miles from the North Pole on the Northwest tip of Greenland. The camp was a series of parallel trenches 26 feet both deep and wide covered with a steel arch. Prefabricated buildings placed into the trenches created a protected and comfortable base powered by a small portable nuclear reactor. The Army abandoned the camp after just a few years because the ice was more unstable than expected.

To hide the super secret nature of the project it was disguised as a scientific expedition. One product of the operation was an ice core drilled 4500 feet through the Greenland Ice Sheet to the land surface below. Drilling down through ice is like drilling back through time. Each layer in the ice is like the ring of a tree, representing the snow that fell that year. The core, drilled through the ice for almost a mile, was sectioned and stored in long metal tubes each representing thousands of years of snowfall. The Camp Century scientists were focused on studying the ice itself and ignored the bit of dirt found at the very bottom.

Not much research was done on the core before it was moved from an Army freezer to the University of Buffalo in the 1970s, then to another freezer in Copenhagen, Denmark, in the 1990s, where it was forgotten. Finally, in 2017 when it was being moved to yet another freezer it was rediscovered. In 2019, scientists became interested in studying the 400,000 to 1 million year old sediment at the very bottom of the core. They were fascinated to discover not sand and rock but bits of fossilized twigs, leaves and moss. They realized that northern Greenland, less than 1000 miles from the North Pole, was more sensitive to climate than they thought and had once been not only ice free but may have had fir trees within the last million years. That realization was also very troubling.

Global warming deniers like to dismiss the warnings of scientists by claiming that the climate is always changing. Like most disinformation which contains a kernel of truth, that claim is true; but incomplete and irrelevant. The Earth’s climate has changed, many times, but always in response to natural forcings, always over a period of many thousands of years and not since humans have settled into cities. Human civilization has developed in a very stable climate, one that is now being changed by human activity. That change, occurring not over many thousands of years but just a hundred or so, will have unknown effects on humans and their civilization built for a milder climate.

Ice cores drilled in Greenland and on other ancient ice sheets around the globe have produced a fairly detailed picture of the atmosphere going back 800,000 years. By analyzing the air in the bubbles trapped in the ice, science has determined that atmospheric carbon dioxide, the primary driver of long-term global warming, has fluctuated between 170 to 300 ppm over that time period. Since 1950, however, because of humans burning fossil fuels the concentration has increased to 415 ppm. At no time in the past 800,000 has the level of climate warming CO2 been this high.

What troubled the scientists was the realization that the Greenland Ice Sheet was much less ‘permanent’ than thought and had completely melted within the past million years in an atmosphere with much less carbon dioxide than we have now. If that ice sheet, over 1 mile thick and larger than all of Alaska, were to melt (and there are many indications that it is doing just that) it alone would raise the sea level by 20 feet. Such a large injection of fresh water into the northern oceans would affect the many great currents, like the Gulf Stream having a dramatic effect on climate and weather and agriculture and people all over the world.

The next time someone talks about the cost and inconvenience of reducing fossil fuel use to slow climate change just imagine what the cost would be of having unpredictable weather affecting food production all over the world or of having Wall Street, the Norfolk Navy Yard, Cape Kennedy, or Miami underwater.

Tom Meara is a Jamestown resident.

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