Global Events, Global Warming

My most recent expedition was to attempt to make the first descent of the mighty Baliem river in Papua. I’d traveled much of it back in 1997, and found a tumultuous river created by the equatorial glaciers of a mountain chain that is longer and higher than the Alps. The glacier that the Baliem river originates from however has gone, and I would be gobsmacked if there are still any equatorial glaciers around the world when I reach my dotage. In the Indian Himalaya I returned to an iconic glacier to find it had retreated nearly a mile since my last visit. In Alaska, we compared photos of several glaciers to historical photos taken two decades previously. It was a struggle to even line the photos up as the ice had receded so far. On that same trip, a climate scientist friend showed me that in the northern tundra of Alaska, permafrost had sealed the soil frozen since the last ice age. It was now soggy defrosting mud, and the vegetation was starting to rot. She collected huge bin liners full of methane pouring from the once frozen soils (methane is an even more potent climate change agent than CO2) and set them spectacularly on fire. We abseiled down into moulins, huge whirlpool plugholes in glaciers, where icy meltwater tumbles down into the guts of the glacier. These moulins are getting bigger, form earlier in the year and have increased in frequency, and every one sends water to the bottom of the glacier, lubricating its movement, speeding its demise, ultimately increasing the amount that calves off at the end to become icebergs. Down in Antarctica, we came across a few ancient icebergs where the ice was as clear as diamonds. When you stuck a chunk into your whisky, it vaguely fizzed, as compressed microscopic air bubbles were released. Air that had been trapped in the ice for 10,000 years. With 70% of the world’s freshwater sealed in glaciers, ice caps and permanent snow, it’s clear that drastic melting will make sea levels rise. Anyone who doubts that should go and dive or snorkel in the Cenotes of Central America. These limestone caves were formed during times when more of the world’s water was bound up in ice, and world sea levels much lower. There I’ve swum alongside stalagmites and stalactites that can only be formed in air, yet are now thirty metres below the surface of the sea.

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