Columnist Marty Nathan: Signs point to runaway global warming

  • An iceberg floats past Bylot Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, July 24, 2017. If parts of the planet are becoming like a furnace because of global warming, then the Arctic is best described as the world's air-conditioning unit. The frozen north plays a crucial role in cooling the rest of the planet while reflecting some of the sun's heat back into space.  AP FILE PHOTO

Published: 2/28/2018 7:48:55 PM

As I write this I listen to the soaring arias of “La Boheme” wafting from my radio. Life-and-death drama conveyed through music that compels us to weep over the power of human love.

A whole lot bigger drama is playing out in the Arctic that, unfortunately, is even more obscure for the average American than turn-of-the-20th-century Italian opera. I say unfortunately, as it is a drama of physics, chemistry and biology that no doubt will harm every one of us as the years pass.

The climate news theme in recent months has been melting. Melting of ice and melting of permafrost.

In December, for the first time in history in winter, a liquified natural gas tanker sailed without an icebreaker through the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia on a path from South Korea to France. In part the feat was due to advancements in ship-building technologies allowing the new ship to traverse ice up to 2 feet thick. More significantly though, it is a stark indicator of how thin that ice has become.

Then, in eight days in early February, at a time when that same Arctic sea ice should have been reaching its maximum extent, nearly one-third of it covering the Bering Sea off Alaska’s west coast simply disappeared. Already comprising less than half the average surface area of ice in previous years, a significant portion melted completely due to higher temperatures in the region.

Now, let’s be clear: sea ice melting does not cause sea level rise. That is due to the melting of glaciers on land, most importantly in Antarctica and Greenland, pouring their fresh water into the sea. The glacier melt adds to the expansion of volume of the warming oceans and levels rise.

But the melting on land and at sea, particularly in the extreme Northern Hemisphere, is occurring in parallel, caused by the extraordinary rise in temperatures in the Arctic, happening faster than at any time in the last 1500 years. Antarctic glaciers are also melting at an alarming rate, but not as fast as their sisters at the other pole.

That brings us to the most recent bad news for all who live on our world’s coasts. Because the glaciers are melting faster than scientists had figured, the seas are rising and will keep rising at a faster rate than expected. Currently sea level is rising 3 millimeters per year, but by 2100 the rate of rise will more than triple to a centimeter (10 millimeters) per year or 4 inches per decade.

Another study makes clear the urgency of intervention, finding that, beginning in 2020, every five years that we do not level greenhouse gas emissions will mean an overall rise in sea levels of 8 inches. Thus, if emissions reach their highest in 2025, sea levels may peak at only 8 inches above present.

However, if we go about business as usual, increasing the burning of fossil fuels until 2050, sea level will ultimately rise 4 feet above the present. That does not take into account ocean storm surges or flooding from megastorms and hurricanes.

But glacial and sea melts are not perhaps the most threatening. Yale Climate Connections published a chilling must-read about the state of the tundra entitled “The Permafrost Time Bomb Is Ticking: We Must Act Now to Defuse It.”

For quite some time scientists have been discussing the melting of the upper layers of the soil that covers one-fifth of the earth’s surface in Siberia, Northern Europe, Canada and Alaska — soil that has been mostly frozen for the last half-million years.

That process has begun. If allowed to increase by business-as-usual emissions causing further warming, the permafrost will release more and more methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide, that will independently reinforce climate change.

Further, the melting will create a “compost bomb” phenomenon we gardeners have all witnessed in our back yard, when “decomposition of (melted) organic matter, once initiated, … become(s) a source of heat itself, causing an explosive increase in soil temperatures, additional decomposition, and methane release.” If you have ever stuck your hand in your compost heap in spring, you get the idea.

This provides a picture of a more complex and explosive feedback loop, self-reinforcing and unresponsive to human intervention, that could be the tipping point to runaway global warming.

The improved understanding of the scientific drama playing out to the North is as compelling as the hero’s desolate cry of “Mimi!” at the end of “Boheme.” To string a metaphor much too far, though, we have a whole lot more power to change the outcome than Rudolfo does in the tragic ending.

To reach greenhouse gas peak emissions, we must stop the burning of fossil fuels, not increase it. That means no more new fossil fuel infrastructure, meaning no Columbia Gas pipeline expansion to Holyoke. Instead we must deal with peak loads by other less expensive means.

Further, it means expanding, not cutting the funding for the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, our community’s buses that should be going more places more often to cut transportation emissions. The governor’s budget eliminates $8 million from PVTA by level funding when costs have risen. Your legislators, when you call them, have the power to reverse these cuts and give people without cars the right to go to work, to church or to shop.

And in these bleak times, there is hopeful news. Those same legislators have a chance to vote on the newly-minted Senate omnibus energy bill, S. 2302, introduced only two weeks ago. This bill makes the kind of changes that we need to effectively stop the melting: a fair price on carbon and mechanisms to support and expand the already rapidly growing wind and solar industries. If you have never made a call to Boston before, make it now.

Saying that, I must recognize the deep sadness in our community at the loss of a man who was a powerful proponent of climate and of justice on Beacon Hill. Rep. Peter Kocot of Northampton understood and tackled the most difficult issues facing our state. He was approachable, thoughtful and reliable. We have lost a great friend and advocate.

I think, though, that he probably would want us to respond by working harder for the issues he championed. So be it.

Dr. Marty Nathan lives in Northampton and is a physician at BaystateBrightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW and drinks coffee with She may be reached at


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