Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Ice Is Melting
distributed 6/19/09 - ©2009

"The ice is melting," was the refrain of a sermon that I heard by Rev. Robert Edgar in 2001. That sentence has been firmly planted in my head and my heart for over eight years.

The National Council of Churches' eco-justice conference in 2001 was held in Washington, DC. 350 of us gathered in a shared concern for all of God's creation, and with a special interest in the intertwined topics of climate change and energy policy. Along with worship, workshops and networking, we spent one day visiting with our members of Congress about the energy bill being pushed by the new Bush-Cheney administration. It was in that context of concern and action that Rev. Edgar, the General Secretary of the NCC, hammered home his point that "the ice is melting."

Through the eight years that President Bush was in the White House, the United States failed to take any meaningful action to reduce our own greenhouse impacts, or to encourage international cooperation on a climate response. So here we are, in 2009, five months into the Obama administration, and not only is Mr. Edgar's refrain from 2001 still true, the warning is even more urgent.

Melting ice, while only one aspect of the global heating crisis, is a vivid and undisputed indicator of the damage that industrial civilization is inflicting on this planet. Dramatic photos and stories of disappearing ice are more compelling than statistical measures of average global temperatures. As Mr. Edgar knew, telling our congregations and communities that "the ice is melting" can be an effective motivator.

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The ice is melting. In the Arctic, the floating polar ice cap is shrinking at a remarkable rate. The total area covered by ice is declining, and the ice that is present is thinner than historical averages. In a powerful feedback loop, the more the ice melts, the faster the Arctic warms. The white surface of an ice sheet reflects sunlight and heat, but the dark open water absorbs heat, accelerating the process as the recedes. Back in 2001, the most reputable estimate of global warming impacts was that the north pole would be completely ice-free in 2050. Now, some scientists predict such an event may occur as soon as 2015, and certainly by 2035.

An ice-free arctic is a disaster for polar bears, as all of those iconic pictures of stranded bears remind us. In addition, an open ocean intensifies storms that batter coastal communities. The release of vast quantities of cold fresh water (from melting ice which doesn't have salt in it) impacts aquatic life and ocean currents. And the rapid heating at the top of the planet spreads warming across northern tundra, thawing permafrost, releasing ancient methane, and adding even more power to the greenhouse effect.

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The ice is melting. All around the world, glaciers and mountain snowfields are in retreat, with dire consequences already present, and with even greater impacts in the near future.

The Andes provide one vivid example. A report this spring from the World Bank documents that Bolivia's famed Chacaltaya glacier has lost 80 percent of its surface area since 1982. Peruvian glaciers have lost more than one-fifth of their mass in the past 35 years, reducing by 12 percent the water flow to the country's coastal region, home to 60 percent of Peru's population. It is predicted that many of the Andes' tropical glaciers will disappear within 20 years. For centuries, those Andean glaciers have provided a stable year-round flow of water that is needed for irrigation, drinking and -- more recently-- for hydropower. When that glacial water is unavailable in the dry season, it will present a crisis for both urban and rural communities.

Similar disruptions of dry season flows are expected in the regions surrounding the Himalayas. The snowfields of the world's highest mountains are "the water towers of Asia." They are the source of some of the world's greatest rivers, and provide water to almost 1/4 of the world's human population. The Ganges, Yellow, Yangze and other rivers support 1.4 billion people -- over 20% of the world's population. When the glaciers are gone, those rivers may dry op completely during several months each year. In addition to a crisis of drinking water, there will be shrinking grain harvests in a regions of China and India that are highly dependent on irrigation -- with a likely result of massive migration and widespread famine.

Ironically, in the Himalayas, the now-rapid increase in snowmelt is creating a disaster situation from too much water. As the glaciers shrink, surging rivers overwhelm the glacial moraines that form high-altitude lakes. When those natural dams break, flood waters and debris sweep down the valleys, wiping out towns.

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The ice is melting, even the two largest ice sheets in the world -- Antarctica and Greenland. The annual flow of cubic miles of water is contributing to sea level rise.

The rising ocean level is most critical for low-lying island nations, and for heavily-populated Bangladesh, much of which will be inundated. All around the world, though, cities and agricultural land in coastal areas will be impacted when sea levels rise -- perhaps by 5 to 6 feet before the end of this century. Storm surges will push farther inland, aquifers will be contaminated by salt water, and sea-side developments will be flooded. The gradual rise of sea level will create tens of millions more refugees.

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The ice is melting -- and the human impacts of global heating are an important factor. It is essential that we do something about it!

In the US, the House of Representatives will be voting soon on the American Clean Energy and Security Act. While that act is not as strong as we'd like, it is the first potentially viable bill to address climate change. Contact your representative, and express your conviction about the need for strong legislation! See Project Vote Smart for up-to-date contact information on your representative.

Globally, is calling for a day of climate action next October 24 -- six weeks before the next round of international climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Eco-Justice Ministries encourages you to plan an event in your church or community. These coordinated and creative actions are one way that we can build the grassroots movement that is essential for real change.

The ice is melting. The reality of global heating is evident in shrinking ice caps and disappearing glaciers, in flooded rivers that will soon run dry, and in the creeping rise of the world's oceans. The costs to human culture and natural systems will be immense. Act now, personally and politically, to minimize this disaster.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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