The Cold Truth about Greenland

June 13, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Chicago Sun‐​Times on June 13, 2007.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recently returned from a junket to Greenland, where, among other things, she says she “saw firsthand evidence that climate change is a reality.” True enough, Madame Speaker, but you didn’t see.

New satellites tell us that Greenland — mainly southern Greenland — is shedding ice at the rate of 25 cubic miles per year. If Greenland lost most of its ice, sea levels would rise 20 feet or so. Greenland is by far the largest mass of ice in the Northern Hemisphere, with roughly 10 percent of the world’s total.

Greenland’s total ice volume is 680,000 cubic miles, and it is losing four ten–thousandths of its ice per year. Do the math. That works out to 0.4 percent of its total mass per century.

Never mind that the most recent study of Greenland indicates that even this minuscule rate may have slowed. Pelosi is falling victim to the common misconception that a slight, additional warming of Greenland will lead to the biblical flood, pronto.

Greenland warmer for 50 years

That’s the horror–show scenario driving the hysteria. How well does it stack up against the facts?

Data from the United States’ National Climactic Data Center show that temperatures in Greenland for the last decade are hardly unusual when compared to temperatures for the last 100 years. The period from 1915 through 1965 — an entire half–century — was about two degrees warmer than it is today.

Where, at that time, was the catastrophe? With the exception of a few geographers, no one noticed. Where was the acceleration in sea‐​level rise? There was none. In 1948, Hans van Ahlmann published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society commenting upon the loss of ice from coastal fjords and the arrival of fish associated more with warmer waters, noting that there was an increase in habitable land.

In 2000, Glen MacDonald and several coauthors published an eye–opening perspective on the climate history of the Eurasian arctic in the highly respected journal Quaternary Research (“quaternary” is the era of recent ice ages, beginning about 1.8 million years ago) in which they examined radiocarbon dates of old trees deposited in the tundra, far north of today’s northernmost trees. In that region, the tree line is generally over 100 miles south of the Arctic Ocean. But for much of the era from 3,000 to 9,000 years ago, the forest extended right to the sea.

Summer temperatures — the same ones that melt Greenland’s ice — are what determine the Northern treeline. MacDonald had to conclude that “Over much of northern Eurasia [during that period], summers may have been 4.5 to 12.6°F warmer than today.”

Moreover, they wrote that the only way this could occur was if there was a massive incursion of warm (Gulf Stream) water into the Arctic Ocean. How does such water get there? By passing between Greenland and Europe. It’s the only way.

So Greenland had to have been much warmer than it is now for six millennia. Again, where are the records of unprecedented rises in sea level? There aren’t any, because there wasn’t any. Sea levels rose to roughly where they are today.

A deafening silence

The true history of Greenland makes one thing clear: there’s no climate emergency, and therefore no need to legislate draconian regulations on energy use that will dramatically affect almost every aspect of our lives. Further, no one has demonstrated that we even have the ability to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the amount necessary to curtail a substantial portion of Greenland’s future warming.

If you can’t do something, why bother? Symbolism costs money and takes away the capital that could be used in the future for investment in real, though yet unknown, energy technologies.

If Pelosi wants to do something about the Earth’s climate, rushing the world toward a failed policy rooted in junk science is about the worst thing imaginable.

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