Graham Brennan discusses climate change and its potentially devastating effect on the planet.
I enjoy watching the occasional disaster movie, like The Day After Tomorrow. Hollywood has long-understood the vicarious thrill audiences get watching the protagonists lives teeter on the brink of danger as the result of some unstoppable force of nature. The best disaster movies create a sense of foreboding and doom that both frightens and entertains in equal measure. The proximity of the impending doom is always a critical factor. The timescale is necessarily compounded for maximum dramatic effect. The glacial pace of sea levels rising, eventually flooding a city over the course of 100 years is hardly going to set pulses racing. Certainly not when compared to a sudden, deadly tidal wave that topples over sky scrapers in the blink of an eye.
Back in the real world, we are a little bit like the fabled frog sitting in the pot of slowly heating water wondering whether to jump or not. Climate change has so far not produced that irrefutable OMG moment of sufficient threat that would create an unwavering sense of urgency for action. Right this moment, climate change is easy to ignore, argued away or dismissed as a random act of God, with blithe disregard for the science.
Should we be worried?
For me though, pictures of the shrinking Arctic ice cap and retreating glaciers offer ample evidence for global warming. While melting, floating Arctic ice has no effect on sea level, glaciers melting on land will flow into the sea and cause the sea levels around the world to rise. If the two most important glaciers namely Greenland and the Antarctic melted completely, it is estimated that the sea level could rise by more than 60m. Given this dramatic loss of Arctic ice, why isn't everyone more worried about the instability of these two giant glaciers? While the United Nations' Atmospheric Report predicts that temperatures could rise by 2°C to 5°C with sea level rises of 0.5m to 0.8m by the end of this century, critically, it acknowledges a lack of evidence on the future ice loss rates from Greenland and Antarctica. We may be in for a nasty shock.
NASA has been quietly watching these two glaciers from space since 2003. During this period, Greenland has recently been losing ice at an average rate of 280 billion tonnes each year. This is equivalent to covering the whole island of Ireland with a 4 meter thick layer of ice and allowing this to slide into the sea each year. The data shows that the rate at which the ice is disappearing is increasing and may rise tenfold when feedback mechanisms become stronger. NASA scientist James Hansen speculates that both glaciers could contribute to a sea level rise of 3 metres by 2065 thus dramatically reducing the timeframe for change.
Even NASA is having an OMG moment
These measured ice loss rates were worrying enough to persuade NASA to start a project called Oceans Melting Greenland (O.M.G.). This project began in 2015 and will attempt to create the most accurate model of the melting processes for the Greenland glacier. It includes detailed measurements of the geography, ice thickness, water current flows, glacial rivers, temperatures, fjords shapes etc. This work may dramatically change our perspective on climate change.
These techniques can then be applied to the great Antarctic glacier, which is already showing signs of being in trouble. Scientists are watching with bated breath as a giant 180km long crack has formed in the 350-metre-thick ice shelf which threatens to set loose an iceberg the size of County Mayo and three times deeper than the Irish Sea - And no, it's not the plot of a Stephen Spielberg movie. There are fears that floating shelf ice like this will break away to fully expose the glaciers that sit on land. With nothing to hold them back, these giant glaciers could finally begin to roll and may develop a momentum that's unstoppable.
What is my role in climate change?
If you've read this far, you may well be thinking, "Well, that was a gloomy read, it's clearly too late now to stop it" or "Sure, NASA have it in hand, I might as well leave it to the experts." The reality is, we can't leave it to NASA and chances are it won't play out like a Hollywood movie. Bruce Willis just isn't going to turn up playing a scientist who discovers if he simply uses an enormous amount of explosives, he can save Earth and put an end to pesky climate change once and for all.
Instead, we alone must face the harsh reality of climate change and ask ourselves, how do we begin to right the wrong? We begin by reducing the amount of energy we use in our daily lives, by reducing our use of fossil fuels and associated carbon dioxide emissions and by playing our part in Ireland's energy transition. The factoring-in of energy consumption must become a cumulative unbreakable habit for our nation and all of us need to begin asking the following questions:
- How can I invest in my home to ensure the planet's future is brighter?
- Should I consider an electric vehicle for my next car?
- Have I purchased the most energy efficient appliances on the market?
- How can I help my employer be more energy efficient?
- What can I do as part of my own local community?
At this very moment, we're nowhere near being a nation of habitual energy savers and we urgently need to commit to playing our individual roles in the fight against Climate change.
Graham Brennan is a graduate of University College Galway in Ireland and Cranfield University in England. He worked initially in the offshore oil and gas sector in Aberdeen and later worked for Rolls-Royce Aero Engines in Derby, UK. From there he joined the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland in 2002 to manage the Renewable Energy Research Development and Demonstration programme. Graham has been responsible for preparing Ireland’s Ocean Energy Strategy and promoting the development of renewable energy products and markets for a wide range of technologies. He is currently responsible for managing the Electric Vehicle research programmes in SEAI. He is also a member of the IEA committee on hybrid and electric vehicles.