State of the Oceans Special: Climate Week


Photo by JP Valery

Photo by JP Valery



Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet—the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

Coinciding with this week’s United Nations General Assembly and unprecedented global student actions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. In a nutshell, the news isn't good.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. The report finds the cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We've known this for over 25 years, but it’s now clear that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.




The United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday was meant to highlight concrete promises by presidents, prime ministers and corporate executives to wean the global economy from fossil fuels to avoid the worst effects of global warming. But despite the protests in the streets, China on Monday made no new promises to take stronger climate action. The United States, having vowed to pull out of the Paris Agreement, the pact among nations to jointly fight climate change, said nothing at all. A host of countries made only incremental promises.



Ahead of the summit, millions of people demonstrated across the world demanding urgent action to tackle global heating, in what became the largest climate protest in history. For the first time since the school strikes for climate began last year, young people called on adults to join them – and they were heard. Trade unions representing hundreds of millions of people around the world mobilised in support, employees left their workplaces, doctors and nurses marched and workers at firms like Amazon, Google and Facebook walked out to join the youth.



In the same week as the IPCC report, Italian authorities have closed roads and ordered the evacuation of huts on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, following warnings that part of a glacier could collapse at any moment. A staggering 8.8 million cubic feet of ice could break away from the Planpincieux glacier on the Grandes Jorasses mountain in the Mont Blanc massif, experts reported in an analysis published this week.



Adding further urgency, a separate report has warned that sea-ice algae are losing their homes and the ocean is at risk of starving. Micro-organisms are central to the production and consumption of greenhouse gases and are in turn affected by planetary changes. Phytoplankton, for example, absorb carbon dioxide from the air and form the biological base of the marine food web on which everything else depends.



Header image by Annie Spratt



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