January 2017

ICCI’s hallmark is a deep belief in the power of solid science to convince policymakers and decision makers to change course before climate change overtakes us all.  Not all leaders, and not all at once — but enough to make a difference.  We have been spreading the increasingly-clear message from the cryosphere (snow and ice) regions of the world since COP-15 in Copenhagen, sending our volunteer scientists and diplomats to venues as widespread as Brussels and Washington, to the tip of South America, Alaska, Greenland and Siberia to make sure the voice of the cryosphere is clearly heard.  We even run projects to show how warming might be slowed by addressing methane emissions or black carbon pollution close to the mountains and glaciers that are so key to the global climate system.

Just before COP-21, ICCI released the Thresholds report, outlining in clear and concise language the science around “thresholds” in polar and mountain regions – boundaries that once crossed, cannot be turned around even if temperatures return to pre-industrial – they must go lower still, in essence unless the globe enters a new Ice Age.   As world leaders met in Paris, the work (and sometimes word-for-word cites) from Thresholds began showing up in the negotiating rooms and even related speeches of world leaders such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and President Obama, admitting that Paris would not be enough to impact the changes in the globe’s cryosphere that are beginning to drive climate change past points of no-return.

Paris was a good start, but the basic message of Thresholds is that – based on solid science – Paris is not enough.  As the chief report graphic above shows, some critical thresholds such as loss of tropical and mid-latitude glaciers already have been crossed at today’s temperatures.  The Andes glaciers, all glaciers in the continental United States and Scandinavia and New Zealand will disappear even if the temperature never rises beyond 2016’s record.  The same is true of a great deal of permafrost, and an ice-free summer Arctic Ocean is not out of the question.  More seriously, we are in the risk zone for loss of Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which together with other factors hold 15 meters of committed sea level rise.

Those 15 meters will not come immediately, or even for many centuries.  But the meaning of
“Thresholds” and the cryosphere dynamics known to scientists, and still not understood by policy and business leaders, is that those 15 meters become inevitable and unstoppable once the threshold is crossed.  Future generations are likely to draw a line somewhere in the past two decades or the two decades to come and say, this is where the loss of 15 meters of coastline became inevitable.  ICCI is working to make sure that figure is avoided to the extent possible, but even if no longer possible there are many thresholds that remain – irrevocable polar ocean acidification, loss of additional permafrost and most seriously, involvement of the entirety of Antarctica in ice sheet melt, which holds an additional 35-40 meters of seal-level rise.

Cryosphere is not merely a side issue in the drama of climate change and global stability – today, based on their observations and not simply models, cryosphere scientists affirm that it is the only battle.  Lose the cryosphere, and the globe will flip into a new state not seen for 35 million years.  We must accept that many thresholds have been crossed, but we still have time to avoid others that would bring vast and irrevocable suffering and loss to humanity and the ecosystems that surround and sustain us.  ICCI’s mission is to preserve the cryosphere, not just for its own sake but to preserve as much of today’s global climate system and environments as possible.

By Amy Imdieke, Global Outreach Director, and Pam Pearson, Director of ICCI.
Published Jan. 20, 2017      Updated Jan. 20, 2017 8:57 pm