Scientists Look Back in Time to Find Our Future
While a group of scientists are drilling 2.5 kilometers into the glaciers of Greenland, residents of Norfolk, Virginia, a medium-sized city on the Eastern Seaboard, find themselves parking their cars one street up from the coast during high tide.
An arbitrary connection? Not at all.
According to James White, Director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, the drilled out ice cores of Greenland may eventually tell the people in Norfolk when to stop moving their cars and find another city farther inland to park them in.
The ice cores hold information that can lead to a better prediction of coming rises in sea level, says White.
At the depth of more than 2.5 kilometers, scientists at the NEEM-project on northwestern Greenland have accessed ice samples from the Eemian period 130,000 years ago when the planet was a few degrees warmer than it is today.
White and his colleagues hope that the samples will tell them how temperatures and ice sheets responded to higher greenhouse gas concentrations during the Eemian. And they hope that information will help them better predict how much ice in the Arctic is likely to melt and thereby raise sea level.
The purpose of the NEEM-project is not to determine whether sea levels will rise or not. It is to clarify exactly how much and how quickly they will do so.
According to White, current models predict sea levels will rise about one meter by 2100. But even this relatively small change will have a major impacts on coastal cities and their infrastructures around the world, he says.
Already the Thames in England is closing its lock gates at high tide to protect the city of London. And in Norfolk, Virginia, city planners have already started to ask new and very different questions.
“Say you want to build a sewage treatment plant,” White says. “Where do you build it? That question used to be answerable in a very different way than it is today. Now another question is: How high up should this sewage treatment plant go?”
Current climate models are indicative but still far from accurate. Knowing more precisely how much sea levels will rise can help planners determine which areas to protect. Moreover, a more accurate prediction of the pace of coming sea level rise can help policy makers decide how to allocate resources to protect coastal areas.
“If you are going to pump $10-20 billion into trying to protect New Orleans, you would like to know over what period of time that investment will be viable,” White says.
The Eemian period is not identical to what we are experiencing today. Global warming is caused by the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gasses, whereas the Eemian was even warmer than today due both to greenhouse gases and a different alignment of the planet to the sun, according to White.
But figuring out how the Arctic ice sheets responded to the warming could prove to be one of the best ways of projecting what will happen with sea levels within the next hundred years.
White says there is no debating whether things will happen. “Today we are burning fossil fuels faster than we ever have. And we should not only have been slowing that rate down, we ought to have been in negative,” he says.