Rethink sustainability

What does the frozen Antarctic continent have to do with an affordable housing crisis in Miami or flooded subways in New York City?

As climate science and policies continue to be debated worldwide, the eyes of New Zealand’s—and the world’s—top climate scientists are on the frozen continent of Antarctica.

A ticking time bomb

The Antarctic is buried, covered by a layer of ice that is currently 2.5 miles thick and represents 90 percent of all the world’s ice. Scientists from Victoria University of Wellington, located in the thriving capital of New Zealand, are modelling glacier and ice sheet melting and its impact on global sea-level rise. Professor James Renwick, a world-renowned climate scientist and one of the lead authors for the next United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate assessment report due out in 2021, says, “The ticking time bomb for global sea-level rise is buried in the glaciers of Antarctica.”

Urban impacts

Sea-level rise means flooding is already happening on a daily basis in coastal areas like Miami. Even under the most optimistic projections, Miami can expect to see up to 6 feet of sea-level rise by the end of the century. This is depressing the value of affluent waterfront properties while property values in poorer neighbourhoods that lie at higher elevation are skyrocketing.

In New York City, flooding due to sea-level rise and powerful storms such as Hurricane Sandy have already inundated parts of the subway system, with projections that 37 percent of lower Manhattan will be flooded by mid-century. As the climate warms, the city will have to reconfigure much of its urban fabric, especially the 520 miles of shoreline.

Understanding the risks

In a recently published article in Nature, researchers from the globally recognised Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University of Wellington noted the Antarctic ice sheets are capable of widespread melting, raising sea levels by as much as 65 feet if current atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are sustained over centuries.

Lead author PhD student Dr Georgia Grant warned, “Our new study supports the idea that a tipping point may be crossed, if global temperatures are allowed to rise more than two degrees, which could result in large parts of the Antarctic ice sheet melting over the coming centuries. It reinforces the importance of the Paris target.” The Paris Agreement is an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation, adaption, and finance signed by the United States and nearly 200 other countries in 2015 to combat climate change.

It is all about understanding the risks to enable informed action. As Professor Tim Naish, former director of the Antarctic Research Centre, asks: “How much sea level, along with the other negative impacts of climate change like droughts and floods, are we prepared to commit future generations to?”

Established in 1897, Victoria University of Wellington is a globally recognised civic university. We are leaders in sustainability, creativity, and government, and our research intensity is ranked #1 in New Zealand (Performance-Based Research Fund, 2018).