Climate Change in the Hot Seat

As one corner of the world faces severe drought, concerns about floods overwhelm another. Thanks to this spring’s unseasonably hot and dry conditions and heightened El Niño worries, global warming and “red flag” warnings have taken center stage. Images of burning brush and talk of water shortage regulations add to the unease. “It’s pretty undeniable that the climate is getting warmer,” said UCSB Earth Science researcher Doug Wilson. “It’s more sophisticated to ask, is it getting warmer because people are burning fossil fuels? Ninety-nine percent consensus is that that’s the main thing going on.”

This week, the New York Times reported that a large sheet of the West Antarctica ice sheet has started to fall apart and will likely continue to melt — albeit relatively slowly for the rest of the 21st century — posing a potential crisis for coastal communities. If the study holds up, a 10-foot rise or more in sea level is inevitable in the coming century. “That’s really unpleasant for people who live near the beach,” Wilson added, referring to the article.

Last fall, Wilson and others published a study indicating that West Antarctica ice sheets existed 20 million years earlier than previously thought. They also found that the West Antarctica bedrock was higher 34 million years ago than it is today. Since much of the land was above sea level, a large ice sheet could exist then, even though the oceans were warmer. With their work, they highlighted that the West Antarctic ice sheets — now and in the past — were a crucial area to scrutinize, with far-reaching effects on climate and long-term implications for the Earth.

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