As Greenland ice sheets melt at unprecedented rates, scientists urge civil disobedience

Greenland’s ice sheet is witnessing extensive melting, a phenomenon which does not usually take place in the month of September

September 11, 2022 by Sandipan Talukdar
Greenland Ice Sheet. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In yet another unusual occurrence, the ice sheet of Greenland is witnessing extensive melting, a phenomenon which does not usually take place in the month of September. Experts opine that this has been the largest instance of melting, as per data from at least four decades. Melting of this kind typically occurs in the middle of summer in July.

Greenland Ice Sheet stretches across 17,10,000 square kilometers and accounts for nearly 80% of the surface of Greenland. After the Antarctic ice sheet, this is the second largest ice body in the world. The Greenland ice sheet spans 2,900 kilometers length-wise and it is 1,100 kilometers in the widest portion.

The beginning of September usually marks the end of the melting season in Greenland, as the sun goes lower in the sky and the temperature gets cooler. This time, towards the end of the first week of September, warm air blew northwards across the west coast and the Baffin Bay, raising the temperature. This resulted in the loss of billions of tons of ice, which, worryingly, could enhance Greenland’s contribution to the rising sea level. Notably, Greenland is already contributing significantly to sea level rise. According to experts, this event is a reflection of the effect global warming can have in raising not only the intensity but also the length of the melting season in Greenland.

Reports say that between September 2 and 5, weather stations recorded the maximum temperature in the entire year. In some areas of western Greenland, the temperature rose to near 20 degrees Celsius, which is way higher for this time of the year. The summit witnessed a rise in temperature above the melting point. It is the coldest part of the ice sheet. Ted Scambos, a University of Colorado senior researcher, in a statement to the Washington Post said, “It’s truly amazing to see a heat wave like this cover Greenland in September. For the first time on record, temperatures at summit exceeded the melting point in September, on the afternoon of Sept. 3.”

The heatwave caused around 35% of the ice sheet to melt, which is usually observed in July. In usual weather conditions, only about 10% of the ice sheet surface melts during the first half of September. This year’s heat wave at the onset of fall is seen for the second time in a row; last year on August 14, temperature rose around 18 degrees above the average mark.

Climate scientist Xavier Fettweis, in his tweet on September 5, showed how warm air over Greenland boosted the melting events. In a statement commenting on the heat events of 2021 and 2022, Fettweis said, “Both the August 2021 event and the current one were associated with large rainfall amounts and moist clouds invading the area, an increasingly common source for melt events on Greenland.” He further said that these weather systems are new in the ice sheet history.


Scientists urge civil disobedience

A group of leading scientists have argued in a recent article published in the journal Nature Climate Change that scientists should commit civil disobedience. This, the scientists say is in order to show the public the gravity of the climate crisis and also how concerned the scientific community is. The authors argue that civil disobedience has the potential to overcome the complexities and confusion surrounding the subject of the climate crisis.

“When those with expertise and knowledge are willing to convey their concerns in a more uncompromising manner … this affords them particular effectiveness as a communicative act. This is the insight of Greta Thunberg when she calls on us to ‘act as you would in a crisis”—They wrote in the article.

In recent times, scientists have increasingly expressed their willingness in taking part in direct actions that could bring attention to the problem. In April this year, in a ‘scientists rebellion’ 1,000 scientists participated in around 25 countries. In the UK, some scientists were even arrested for sticking scientific papers and gluing their hands onto the glass facade of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The Nature article was written jointly by five climate scientists: Stuart Capstick, Aaron Thierry, Emily Cox, Steve Westlake and Julia K. Steinberger. The article also had Oscar Berglund as a co-author, who is a political scientist specializing in civil disobedience and social movements at the University of Bristol.

The authors mentioned in the article that all of them have participated and offered support to groups who have carried out civil disobedience to highlight the issue of the climate crisis. Explaining their idea, Oscar Berglund was quoted saying, “What we say in the article is that getting involved in this kind of thing can actually add weight to the message that this is a crisis; that these are decent people who know more than anybody else about how deep in the shit we are, and are taking this kind of action – non-violent direct action, civil disobedience. We have a kind of what we call epistemic authority here: people listen to what we are saying, as scientists, and it becomes a way of showing how serious the situation is, that we see ourselves forced to go to these lengths.”

The scientists’ motive of putting pressure on the policymakers by their acts reflects in their words: “The widespread notion that sober presentation of evidence by an ‘honest broker’ to those with power will accomplish the best interests of populations is itself not a neutral perspective on the world; it is instead conveniently unthreatening to the status quo and often rather naive.”

In addition to documenting the climate crisis in ever greater detail, we must consider how we might act in new ways to help bring about a necessary and urgent transformation.

“In the meantime, we have long since arrived at the point at which civil disobedience by scientists has become justified.”