The below remarks are taken from the opening remarks by ICCI Director and Founder Pam Pearson at ICCI’s December 11 UNFCCC side event at COP-20 in Lima, Peru.
Cryosphere. ICCI sometimes gets a hard time from colleagues wondering why in the world we have a word that no one understands as the name of our organization. Almost no one knows what it means, whether in English or Swedish or some other language. Indeed, I was in Athens two months ago and even the Greeks had a hard time with it – despite its Greek origins in Kryos – ice – and of Spheros, meaning the world: ice world, or regions of snow and ice.
Sometimes, even among ourselves we disagree on meanings. Technically speaking for example, the Arctic Ocean at the north pole and Southern Ocean around Antarctica are not “cryosphere” at all when open water, so one ICCI area of current focus, polar ocean acidification should not be allowed by our name. Shoot, even spellcheck does not recognize “cryosphere!”
Using this obscure term in our name is however quite deliberate, and deeply serious, because for all intents and purposes our globe truly is an “ice world,” and the global climate system is driven by developments in these regions where very few of us actually live. Sea levels, methane levels, and other factors have fluctuated wildly over the millennia based on just how much water and carbon were locked up as snow and ice. Living in the lower latitudes, and in an unusually stable period of 11,000 years or so in the current inter-glacial, we sometimes forget that we live on a planet that, more often than not, has been dominated by cryosphere. By that measure, our planet might more accurately be called Kryos, rather than Earth.
And we forget the cryosphere’s past at our peril, because in our current era of extremely rapid climate change, it is the future of these regions that mostly will determine the future of our planet. The climactic changes happening today in the cryosphere clearly are driven by human activity, but this does not mean that they will not in turn become climate drivers. Increased freshwater entering the oceans, methane and CO2 releases from permafrost and near-Arctic seabed, loss of the albedo or reflectivity from Arctic sea ice, together all have the potential to make a very difficult global situation far worse. Increasingly, cryosphere research appears to show that the actions we take in just the next few decades may determine whether these dangerous feedbacks are set in motion, or averted.
From a cryosphere point of view, the battle to preserve snow and ice is not just a side issue or a side event. It is the main drama of the global climate crisis today. If we allow the cryosphere to continue on its current path – and it’s worth noting that the global “pause” in temperature over the past decade was not at all reflected in the Arctic or Antarctica, as the graph below shows — we will make an already-difficult climate future potentially far, far worse for a large majority of the population of this planet, especially the poor: those least able to adapt economically. This includes anyone who lives within a few meters of today’s sea level. Anyone like millions here in Lima or in other Andean regions, or the Himalayas, or the American West, who rely in part on snow and glacier run-off for water supplies. Or anyone reliant on snow or sub-freezing temperatures for their livelihoods, like Inuit hunting and fishing traditions, or even the ski and maple industries in my home state of Vermont.
We all depend on a healthy and vibrant cryosphere for our current way of life. Together, we must make cryosphere a term that everyone knows, and a place that everyone works to preserve.