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writing for godot

The Vanishing Ice: Pay the Price Or Roll the Dice

Written by Thomas Magstadt   
Wednesday, 10 April 2013 02:49
There was a time back in the 1970s, when both the country and the US Congress actually cared about the environment. That has changed, as evidenced by the EPA's failure to enforce pre-existing environmental regulations and Congress's refusal to pass any significant new environmental legislation since President George H.W. Bush signed the Clean Air Act Amendments into law on November 15, 1990.

This policy vacuum is nothing short of reckless in light of mounting evidence that Planet Earth is facing a multifarious ecological crisis of truly momentous proportions. Air and water pollution, soil erosion, and rising mean temperatures are only a few of the many manifestations of this crisis. One major problem all-too-easily dismissed or discounted is the Great Meltdown - not nuclear fuel rods, but ice - now underway.

"Throughout the Andes, glaciers are now melting so rapidly that scientists have grown deeply concerned about water supplies for the people living there. Glacial meltwater is essential for helping Andean communities get through the dry season." That's the conclusion of climate scientists, according to a paper released on Thursday by the journal Science and reported in the New York Times.

Who cares what's happening in the Andes? Of course, we all ought to care, but let's face it, most people only care what's happening in their own backyard. But here's the thing: it IS happening in our backyard.

In Montana's majestic Glacier National Park (GNP), for example, the glaciers that gave the park it's name are retreating at an alarming rate. Here's what the US Geological Survey says about it:

…some effects of global climate change are strikingly clear. Glacier recession is underway, and many glaciers have already disappeared. The retreat of these small alpine glaciers reflects changes in recent climate as glaciers respond to altered temperature and precipitation. It has been estimated that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, and most glaciers were still present in 1910 when the park was established. In 2010, we consider there to be only 25 glaciers larger than 25 acres remaining in GNP. A computer-based climate model predicts that some of the park’s largest glaciers will vanish by 2030. This is only one model prediction but, if true, then the park’s glaciers could disappear in the next several decades. However, glacier disappearance may occur even earlier, as many of the glaciers are retreating faster than their predicted rates.

Of course, it's not only happening in the Andes and the Rockies; it's happening everywhere. Dr. Pangloss types and climate-change doubters deny this inconvenient truth in face of mounting evidence. The data are readily available to anybody with a computer and an internet connection.

In GNP, for example, 12 of the 37 named glaciers shrank nearly 60% between 1966 and 2005; these disappearing dozen are now less than 100,000m2 in size. The other 25 which are larger than a 100,000m2 melted over 25% on average during the same short time span; one (Vulture Glacier) melted over 50%;. two others (Whitecrow and Dixon) melted more than 45%.

The US Geological Survey attributes varying melt or retreat rates for the Park's 37 glaciers to such factors as snow drift patterns, the presence or absence of an adjacent meltwater lake, and, last but not least, climate. Unsurprisingly, the USGS stresses the impact of climate change, above all:

Glaciers, by their dynamic nature, respond to climate variation and reveal the big picture of climate change. Unable to adapt, like living creatures, GNP’s relatively small alpine glaciers are good indicators of climate, the long-term average of daily weather conditions. While occasional big winters or frigid weeks may occur, the glaciers of GNP, like most worldwide, are melting as long term mean temperatures increase.

We can argue until…ahem…hell freezes over about the root causes of climate change, but there is no doubt whatsoever that the glaciers are melting. The only way anyone, even a total disbeliever in global warming, can be indifferent to this fact is to argue that freshwater is non-essential (absurd on its face) or the supply beneath the ground is so abundant that we don't need water from the mountains.

What about rain? Rain is wonderful. Rain is a farmer's best friend. Rain makes everything grow. But rain is proverbial in its unreliability. The problem, as any farmer will tell you, is, it doesn't always rain, and even when it does, it often doesn't rain when you need it. That's why so many farmers and ranchers the world over depend on irrigation systems.

If rain were a reliable source of water, we wouldn't have to pump water from aquifers. At present, groundwater in the U.S. is the source of drinking water for about half the nation and nearly all of the rural population, and it supplies about 50 billion gallons per day – that's 50,000,000,000 gallons – in support of the agricultural economy.

The USGS compares ground water to a bank account. Water withdrawn has to be replaced by periodic deposits. The problem is that, like a bank account, there's no natural limit to the rate of withdrawal, but that's where the analogy breaks down: humans can take "money" out but only nature can make deposits. It has take eons to fill aquifers; they can be depleted – we are depleting them – at a rate measured not in eons, not even in centuries, but in decades or years.

Thus, as the glaciers recede, ground-water depletion is also becoming a major problem. In some areas on the High Plains (which includes the Ogallala aquifer) water levels have declined more than 100 feet. In the Desert Southwest, it's even worse. Water levels have dropped 300 to 500 feet in some parts of Arizona (mainly the Phoenix and Tucson areas), for example.

The "good" news is that only about 30% of the world's freshwater supply is underground. The bad news is that all the rest – roughly 70% – comes from receding glaciers and the ice caps. And more than three-fourths of our freshwater – the water we use in our homes, schools, and business and industry – comes from surface water (rivers and reservoirs). The largest user of surface water is the thermoelectric power industry in the US, but irrigation isn't far behind. According to the USGS, "Almost 60 percent of all the world's freshwater withdrawals go towards irrigation uses."

Years in school are no guarantee any teacher or textbook will ever so much as mention the water cycle. Basically, the earth is a close system, like a giant orbiting terrarium. There's only so much water, and most of it (96.5%) is in the salty seas. Only 1% of the earth's water is fit for humans to drink.

The GNP that Wall Street and Washington use as the supreme measure of the nation's well-being might be all that mattered were it not for what's happening to the other GNP – the one where the glaciers are melting. Ecology is every bit as important as economy. Water is more essential to sustaining life on earth than gas and oil. Both are way too cheap to encourage prudent use or – heaven forbid – serious attention to conservation policy, but of the two it's freshwater that we undervalue – and thus mark down – the most egregiously.

Most of us don't change our consumption patterns unless there is a strong monetary motive. If gasoline cost as much in the US as it does in Europe (that is, more than double the price), few Americans would drive gas-guzzling oversized SUVs and the public would clamor for urban mass transit, efficient long-distance passenger rail service, and ubiquitous bicycle lanes. We shell out hundreds of dollars every month for gasoline, and get indignant when our monthly residential water bill rises above a pittance. The average cost of a 1,000 gallons of water in the US is about $1.50 or 1 penny a gallon.

The value of water used in irrigation in the western United States, for example, can be gauged by the difference in the value between sales of dry versus irrigated cropland (one study in 2006 put the figure at $639-$725 per acre in the Republican and Platte River Basins of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado). A closer look, however, reveals that what determines the price farmers pay for irrigation water is infrastructure and diesel fuel, not the water itself. (According to one recent study, "the average energy use of irrigating crops in Nebraska was equivalent to about 300 million gallons of diesel fuel annually.")

If water cost anywhere near what it's worth, we would all be talking about a different GNP – the one in Montana.

*An earlier version of this article containing links to sources used in the writing appeared at Nation of Change (04/10/2013). See your social media marketing partner
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