Climate Scientists Racing Against Time to Document and More Fully Understand Antarctic Ice Shelf Melting—So Humanity Can Act to Stop It

The Trump/Pence Regime Racing Against Time to Attack All Environmental Controls, Attack Science, and Set the Planet on Fire

June 2, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |



From a Reader:

Reading the recent three-part series “Antarctic Dispatches” in the New York Times provoked me to write this. The series followed a research team that is right now racing to map the contours of the seabed underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. Everyone should check out this series. It is beautifully produced, in one of the world’s most remote and austere places, and shows science as it is actually done that is really interesting in its own right.

But as you might already have guessed, there is much more to the story than that.

The Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica is the world’s largest chunk of floating ice. It is 487,000 square miles, about the size of France. This huge mass of ice rises 100 feet above the ocean surface and extends 900 feet below sea level.

Scientists have known for some time that this ice is melting into the sea. As the first article of the series lays it out:

“Ice sheets flow downhill, seemingly in slow motion. Mountains funnel the ice into glaciers. And ice flowing from the land into the sea can form a floating ice shelf.” These shelves in turn play a big role in blocking and slowing down the flow of ice into the sea.

Scientists have also documented that in parts of Antarctica, glaciers “have been undercut by warmer ocean waters, and the flow of ice is getting faster and faster.”

“The acceleration is making some scientists fear that Antarctica’s ice sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration.”

“Because the collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheet could raise the sea level dramatically,1 the continued existence of the world’s large coastal cities—Miami, New York, Shanghai and many more—is tied to Antarctica’s fate.” Tens, even hundreds of millions of people around the world would have to flee coastal regions and trillions of dollars of property would be lost—just to hint at the economic and human devastation these changes could bring. And almost certainly, a major rise in sea levels would be part of a larger environmental disaster that would also cause all kinds of other environmental problems. (For example, more intense weather including hurricanes and droughts, disease epidemics, loss of arable land and water, fisheries and on and on.)

Up until last year, the biggest problem scientists studying all this faced was a lack of sufficient data to improve their ability to model and understand the processes going on with this ice shelf. 2

Because of this they are not yet sure how accurate their models and predictions about the collapse of the ice shelves are. They could be off by several decades—that is, it could be decades too fast or decades too slow. It is crucial, in the interests of humanity, that they are able to improve their data and ability to make more accurate predictions. These scientists working in Antarctica know that, as the New York Times article puts it:

“...the situation has become a race against time.

“Even as the threat from global warming comes into sharper focus, these scientists understand that political leaders—and cities already feeling the effects of a rising sea—need clearer forecasts about the consequences of emissions. That urgent need for insight has led scientists from Columbia to spend the past two Antarctic summers flying over the Ross Ice Shelf...”

It is important to note that up until now, these studies have been funded by the NSF (National Science Foundation) in the U.S. and the Natural Environment Research Council in Britain. Also, these researchers have made clear that this initial mapping will serve as a “base line” set of data which must then be followed up with repeat surveys over a period of years to pinpoint the speed of the processes occurring in and around the ice shelves.

So, this is a truly riveting story, one that every person and every society that cares about the fate of human (and other) life on the planet would want to follow, actively work to find solutions and urgently give all possible support to science and those working on questions like these in the area of climate science.

Well... now we have Trump/Pence—a fascist regime. Will crucial scientific studies like this one be allowed to continue? What is this regime’s overall response to these earth-shaking questions?

  • a full-on attack on science, the scientific method and even the notion of objective reality and humanity’s ability to understand the truth. And within that, centrally, a particular attack on climate science—saying “climate change is a Chinese hoax.”3
  • the (proposed and already started) dismantling of scientific research that the government has funded in climate change. Some of this shows up starkly in the newly proposed science budget. 4
  • the taking down of climate-related websites and making important data sets harder to access if they are not removed completely.
  • the gutting of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and other agencies that are supposed to help take care of the environment. With the appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, it is being rapidly transformed into the Environmental Pollution Agency.
  • the active effort to promote coal and the burning of fossil fuels, including moves to try to make it impossible for California (and other states) to have air pollution restrictions on cars that are higher than the federal levels. 5
  • The imminent withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. 6

All of these attacks on science—from the sweeping methodological assault of “alternative facts” to the concrete cutting of the budget for crucial climate science, etc.—all of them have the effect of making human society around the world unable to respond in a timely way to the enormous changes that are coming, one way or another. Because of the lopsidedness of a world dominated by large capitalist-imperialist powers with the U.S. at the top of the heap, the U.S. has in its clutches many of the key data sets, key pieces of technology, instruments, satellites, etc., and more that are essential for the whole world to use to understand what is happening with climate change. Trump is assaulting all of that, and this makes human society “blind” in a sense.

It is criminality on a world-record scale, sickening and heartbreaking to think about and maddening to write about. This situation cannot be allowed to stand.

Bob Avakian has said:

This system and those who rule over it are not capable of carrying out economic development to meet the needs of the people now, while balancing that with the needs of future generations and requirements of safeguarding the environment. They care nothing for the rich diversity of the earth and its species, for the treasures this contains, except when and where they can turn this into profit for themselves....These people are not fit to be the caretakers of the earth.    

The Trump/Pence fascist regime has taken all this to more openly grotesque proportions, giving a big-finger “fuck you” to all of humanity, to the rich diversity of life on this planet. Nero was said to have fiddled while Rome burned—these fascists are moving towards a world where they will be dancing in the flames as the whole planet burns. This is another indication of the race against time we all face, the urgent task to remove these monsters from power and to work to bring into being a system that can begin to seriously address the global environmental disaster we face.


1. According to the Times article, "The most vulnerable parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet could raise the sea level by 10 to 15 feet, inundating many of the world’s coastal cities, though most scientists think that would take well over a century, or perhaps longer." Some recent computer models have predicted that such a collapse is possible and could lead to a rise of sea level of six feet by the end of this century - that is, within the lifetime of people alive today. [back]

2. Some of the open questions include, for example:

  • How much melting is occurring on the upper side of the ice shelf?
  • How wide are the spaces between the bottom of the ice shelf and the ocean floor?
  • Are there channels through which warmer water can enter and undermine the shelf?
  • To what extent is warmer water coming in and melting the shelf from below?
  • Where is the warm water coming from? 
  • Is it tied to heightened CO2 emissions and global warming in general? [back]

3. They like to claim they are not attacking science, just parts like climate science, but the whole point of science is you don’t get to pick and choose which part you like. That in itself throws out the scientific understanding and method. [back]

4. We don’t have space to cover in depth all the draconian cuts to science in the proposed Trump budget. What is very clear is that killing climate science across the board is a special major goal. Here are some key points:   

  • The National Science Foundation, which dispenses grants to a variety of scientific research endeavors (including the research discussed in this article), would be trimmed $776 million, an 11 percent cut.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency would see its total funding slashed from $8.2 billion in 2016 to $5.7 billion in 2018, a cut of 31.4 percent. The agency’s staffing would also be cut by 25 percent to levels not seen since the Reagan administration.
  • Up for elimination is EPA’s Global Change Research program, which develops science information to help policymakers, the public and others respond to climate change. “The elimination prioritizes activities that support decision-making related to core environmental statutory requirements,” the Trump EPA wrote in its 756-page budget justification document to Congress.
  • An additional 15 climate-related programs involving EPA partnership with outside groups are also up for eradication, such as the State and Local Climate Energy Program, for helping craft policies to reduce carbon pollution and other environmental goals, and the Global Methane Initiative, an effort to cut methane emissions and harness the gas for energy. These details are largely consistent with the president’s so-called “skinny budget” and with details that have leaked to the public since.
  • International Climate Work

    More cuts to climate programming are on deck at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and State Department.

  • Trump’s budget specifically calls for eliminating the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI), a broad program that includes the U.S. contribution to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and to climate-related bilateral efforts, such as partnerships with China. The budget plan also zeroes out U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries prepare for and respond to climate change.
  • See:

    and [back]

5. When congressional legislators wrote the 1963 Clean Air Act, they acknowledged that California already had pollution-fighting rules, and that its environmental situation was especially dire. So they gave the state the right to write its own, stricter standards.

“California” doesn’t just mean California. Even though California is the only state that can write its own rules, under Section 177 of the Clean Air Act, any state looking for more than the federal package of regulations can opt to follow California’s auto standards.

Today, 13 (mostly northeastern) states and Washington, DC have adopted California’s extra-stringent emissions standards. Nine states also follow California’s mandate that automakers sell zero-emission vehicles. Together, they account for nearly 30 percent of new car sales in the country—and no carmaker wants to build “California cars” and “rest of the world cars.” Result: “All cars meet the California standard,” says Rebecca Lindland, an analyst at Kelley Blue Book. For more details, see [back]

6. Recent reports from the just concluded G7 meetings in Europe indicate that some European leaders were trying to convince Trump to remain in the Paris agreement in exchange for the U.S. getting special permission to keep polluting the environment with higher levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. [back]


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