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The great melting and eventual sinking: Have we reached the point of no return?

Fast-melting ice caps and glaciers have perilous and immediate dark sides and slow, excruciating social, ecological, and political pitfalls. Has the time come to explore out-of-the-box solutions to quickly slow down the effects of melting ice caps and rising sea levels? We explore

Published: Feb 27, 2023 04:48:38 PM IST
Updated: Feb 27, 2023 05:35:21 PM IST

The great melting and eventual sinking: Have we reached the point of no return?NASA has issued a sinking prediction that by the mid-2030s, all coastal cities in the United States will witness high-tide flooding Image: Shutterstock

Polar ice caps are melting and shrinking at the rate of 12.6 percent every decade, with almost 95 percent of the oldest and thickest sea ice of the Arctic already gone. The shrinking has brought unprecedented consequences for the Earth's ecosystem, responsible for almost a third of the total rise in water levels since 1993. Triggered by global warming, the melting and the consequent rise in sea levels are predicted to lead to disastrous outcomes by 2030. This is apparent from various reports and warnings issued by agencies worldwide. For instance, NASA has issued a sinking prediction that by the mid-2030s, all coastal cities in the United States will witness high-tide flooding.

The prediction is justifiably alarming, leading to a dawning realisation that humankind is facing a catastrophe of mammoth proportions not so far off in the future. The fact that the sinking is predicted to begin around 2030 is indeed ironic. 2030 is the year when the world aspires to achieve the 2030 Agenda by accomplishing the 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) unveiled by the United Nations in 2015 for people, planet, prosperity, partnership, and peace.

The reverberating impact of melting icecaps

There is a more immediate, perilous dark side of the accelerating melting of icecaps/glaciers/ice sheets that the world is experiencing right now in 2023, seven years ahead of the sinking feared to happen from 2030 onwards. The three massive earthquakes and series of aftershocks in just 24 hours that have turned Türkiye and Syria to dust, killing more than 15,000 at the last count and leaving many more injured, might be linked to the melting of the glaciers on Mount Agri (Ararat). It is not fully understood yet, but the plausibility is undeniable since it is known that when glaciers melt, their load on tectonic plates decreases, freeing them to move against each other with enough friction to trigger earthquakes.

It is not the first time the melting glaciers have wreaked havoc in Türkiye. In the past, there have been reports of one of the largest glaciers in Türkiye melting, triggering landslides. Associate Professor Oğuz Şimşek shared with a news agency in 2021, "Today, you can clearly see glaciers melting, especially at a height of 4,500 meters on the southern slopes of the mountain. Soil hydrated by the glaciers is flowing downwards, near residential areas."

Beyond the catastrophic events unleashed by the melting ice caps, which become headlines globally from time to time, such melting, along with other climate changes, is slowly but irreversibly changing life on Earth—producing multiple social, ecological, and political impacts. Rising sea levels not only threaten to wipe off coastal cities and populations across the globe but also affect the weather and wind patterns. The melting has unleashed extreme weather conditions, extinction of species, displacement of people to create a class of 'climate refugees,' salinity in low-lying areas, and has potentially exacerbated serious water-related conflicts.

Also read: Financial Time Bomb: The Risks Of Climate Inaction To The Global Economy

Is India at peril too?

The answer is an unequivocal yes. According to the World Meteorological Organization's (WMO) 'State of the Global Climate in 2021' report, not only is the sea level rising along the Indian coast, it is rising at a much higher rate than the average global rise. The rate of rise is also not uniform in the Indian Ocean region, with the rise being fastest in the southwestern part, exceeding the global average by 2.5 mm/year. In other parts, including the coastlines, the rise is 0 to 2.5 mm/year faster than the worldwide average.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 'Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis' report, shared some alarming predictions, indicating that "by 2040, Mumbai's sea level will rise by 0.12m compared to 0.4m in 2020" and "Chennai will see a 0.10m rise compared to 0.3m in 2020". It is feared that some coastal cities, including Mumbai, Chennai, Kochi, and Visakhapatnam, could be nearly three feet underwater by the century's end. Another alarming impact of rising sea levels is the loss of 110 square kilometres of ecologically important mangroves in Sundarbans over the past two decades.

The situation is even more threatening up North. The melting of glaciers in the Himalayas has led to the formation of glacial lakes, such as Lake Imja, that can burst at any time due to accelerated melting, releasing a destructive 'Glacial Lake Outburst Flood' (GLOF).

Also read: Arctic warming is happening faster than described, analysis shows

Is the situation redeemable?

The reasons behind melting glaciers are well-documented and discussed. Emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG) such as carbon dioxide since the Industrial Revolution of 1880 has caused global warming, with temperatures increasing by 2°F in total, reaching a point where 2022 was the sixth-warmest year in recorded history. The high land and sea temperatures have caused the 'great melting,' seen as a precursor of dire 'sinking' predictions.

The world has responded exigently, coming up with The Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty on climate change, adopted at COP21 in Paris in 2015. The objective was to limit warming preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to the pre-industrial levels. Despite these efforts, the temperatures continue to rise, with the World Economic Forum noting climate action failure as the most significant global risk. It is indeed a fact that despite all the actions initiated so far, including the firm commitment of nations to achieve carbon neutrality, emissions are growing, and the world seems to be heading toward cataclysmic ecological disasters by 2050. It is becoming increasingly apparent that net zero may not be achieved any time soon. Even if carbon neutrality targets are achieved, these might need to be timelier and more sufficient to stop the glaciers from melting and cities from sinking.

Also read: Why Indian B-Schools must play an active role in larger climate action dialogue

Time to think out of the box and act fast

There is no arguing that the best way to stop, or at least slow down, the 'great melting' is to reduce emissions over the coming decades to reach zero by 2050. However, with this being a challenging and slow process, scientists and researchers have come up with many out-of-the-box solutions, almost too bizarre to contemplate or too difficult to scale up, but a handful are reasonably practical and useful.

For instance, suggesting that the erosion of glaciers needs to be slowed down, Nature, a well-regarded scientific journal, suggested building a 100-meter-long dam in front of the Jakobshavn glacier (Greenland), one of the worst affected glaciers to restrict its erosion.

Another initiative that has made headlines is 'refreeze the ice' introduced by a UK startup. The plan is to use a solar-powered pump to bring water from under the Arctic Ice sheet to create a lake. Exposed to the cold air, the water in the lake would refreeze, replenishing the ice sheet. It sounds simple theoretically, but there are challenges in implementing, both operational and financial.

Yet another ambitious plan was unveiled by Impact Research, Germany, to stop the ice sheets from collapsing. The project entails spraying a large amount of artificially-created snow over west Antarctica to save coastal cities worldwide from sea level rise. Continuing in a similar vein, a team of Indonesian designers proposed using submarines as giant ice makers in the ocean. A US-based non-profit organisation Ice911 has also come up with a solution, a product that is essentially a sand-like material made from silicate glass. Since this substance is highly reflective, it could effectively reflect sunlight off the surface. Tests have proven that it results in thicker ice sheets. The implementation of these solutions continues to be debated.

Putting their most innovative minds to work, scientists have devised a unique idea: seeding the atmosphere with chemicals to block sunlight, but the idea was criticised for the cost and risks involved. Another exciting development has been the proposal of geoengineering projects ranging from using robots to build underwater walls to protect the glaciers to pumping cold water through underground tunnels to thicken the ice and prevent it from sliding into the ocean. Michael Wolovick, a glaciologist at Princeton University, suggested that these projects could be viable: "These geoengineering projects could delay much of the polar glaciers from melting into the sea for centuries."

Also read: On the way to climate hell: Will COP27 negotiations enforce climate action commitments?

An interesting, more financially viable solution (estimated annual cost of $11 billion) is spraying particles through aeroplanes to undertake stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) effective in dimming sunlight, thereby having a cooling effect.  

With these solutions still being contemplated and, in some cases, piloted, coastal cities around the world, such as Miami Beach, are looking for local-level solutions such as the installation of extensive pump systems to stem the rising tides and raising roads further above sea level to counter against the rising sea level. However, this comes at a cost that most nations, including developed ones, may need help to undertake along their coastline. What is most worrisome is that beyond a point, no barrier will be sufficient to stop the surging waters. We could well have reached the point of no return.

Shalini Talwar, Associate Professor, Finance and Economics, SPJIMR, Mumbai & Research Lead, SPJIMR’s Centre for Innovation in Sustainable Development (CISD) Aryan Sugla, PGDM (Marketing) 2022-24, SPJIMR, Mumbai.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai. Views expressed by authors are personal.]

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