NEWS Poles group

The King and I: UMass Amherst Researchers Deliver Remarks to International Symposium of Leading Polar Scientists, Hosted by Prince Albert II of Monaco

As the world warms due to human-caused climate change, global attention has increasingly been drawn to the polar regions, and a pair of UMass Amherst geosciences professors, Julie Brigham-Grette and Rob DeConto, have found their work central to tackling the climate change problem. Recently, Brigham-Grette (past chair of the US National Academy Polar Research Board) and DeConto, who is also the co-director of the School of Earth and Sustainability at UMass and a lead author for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, were invited to address an international symposium of the world’s leading polar researchers, at an event called “The Cold is Getting Hot!,” organized by the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research and the International Arctic Science Committee, in collaboration with the Oceanographic Institute, Prince Albert I of Monaco Foundation, the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and the UN Decade for Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.

NEWS Poles talk with Julie Brigham-Grette
Julie Brigham Grette, center, warns the world about the risk of melting polar ice.

The symposium was structured around four main themes:

  1. Understanding changes in the poles, including changes in the Arctic and Southern Oceans chemistry, as well as in ice regimes, permafrost, glaciers, and biodiversity;
  2. The contribution of polar changes to the global climate, focusing on how changes in the poles are amplifying changes elsewhere, including ice melting driving sea- level rise, and links between polar changes and extreme weather events around the planet;
  3. Effects of polar changes on global human societies and economies, including assessing and mitigating risks for dependent communities; and
  4. Management responses in the face of uncertainties.

Brigham-Grette gave a deep history of the earth’s polar paleoclimate over the past 5-million years, which has revealed that both the West Antarctic and Greenlandic ice sheets have completely melted at various points in the past. Polar ice is “very vulnerable” she said, and “what we know from the past is that every tenth of a degree matters.” In fact, the last time the earth’s atmosphere had as much carbon dioxide as it does today was during the Pliocene period, about three million years ago, and sea level was between 16 and 23 meters higher than it is today.

NEWS Rob DeConto with the Prince Albert II or Monaco
Rob DeConto with the Prince Albert II of Monaco

While Brigham-Grette spoke on the earth’s history, DeConto spoke about the future. “Geologic records have been incredibly important in thinking about the pace of change,” DeConto said. And that pace of change is accelerating. Today, the dominant driver of sea-level rise is the loss of land ice—those Greenlandic and West Antarctic ice sheets. In the last decade, the West Antarctic ice sheet lost about three times more ice than in the previous decade. “West Antarctica is waking up,” said DeConto. “And that’s a problem because Antarctic ice has the potential to raise sea level eight times more than the Greenlandic ice sheet.”

NEWS Poles group
Julie Brigham-Grette (to the immediate right of Prince Albert II) and Rob DeConto (third from Prince Albert II’s left) along with the other attendees of the recent polar symposium.

What does all this mean? “It’s not good enough to keep warming below two degrees Celsius,” says Brigham-Grette, and DeConto agrees: “staying closer to 1.5 degrees is a safer bet.” Furthermore, we are approaching a tipping point in Antarctic melting, and once that tipping point is reached, melting will not be reversible. Together, these conclusions mean that rapid and robust mitigation efforts must begin now.

The symposium issued a final report, meant to help guide policy-makers throughout the world.

Brigham-Grette and DeConto’s full remarks can be seen on YouTube at the 3:25 and 3:48 marks, respectively, and photos from the event, including with Prince Albert II can be found on the symposium’s website.