Antarctica is far away from almost everyone on Earth. Also distant, it often seems, is the threat of climate change.
Yet this week brought news that both are moving ominously closer.
Two teams of scientists published separate reports indicating that a glacier that holds together the West Antarctic ice sheet is eroding from below because of warmer sea water.
Once the Thwaites Glacier gives way, the inter-locking jigsaw of glaciers could break up and cause a rise in worldwide sea levels of at least 10 feet. That scary news is softened by projections that it may take centuries to happen.
Nonetheless, the breakup is being blamed in part on global warming caused by greenhouse gases. That makes the events in Antarctica the largest evidence yet that man is changing the global climate.
The message behind that evidence is clear: Reduce the release of gases that are warming the earth and get ready to cope with the effects of climate change that are already in motion and inevitable.
Evidence of the crack-up in Antarctica comes a week after the release of the National Climate Assessment, a federal report mandated by Congress. The report overseen by a panel of 60 scientists based on the research of hundreds of others said the effects of climate change are already evident in the United States and getting more severe. Mother Nature added an appendix of sorts this week by dropping a foot of snow on Colorado in May.
The report tried to engage a public that tends to think of climate change as gradual and far in the future. It focused on local effects of wildfires and drought in the West, stronger storms like superstorm Sandy on the coast and rising seas that could engulf low-lying cities like Miami and New Orleans and swamp barrier islands that are thick with vacation homes.
The reports outlined scenarios for regions of the nation as climate change advances. In the Southeast, the most recent decade of 2001-2010 was warmest on record, and 21st century weather will see the warmth rising and spreading. For instance, the number of freeze-free days in the Southeast will grow by 20 to 30 days by mid-century. Annual precipitation is expected to increase with a rise in the number of very wet days with rainfall of an inch or more. Meanwhile, precipitation could grow uneven with more frequent summer droughts.
The regional reports are effective in bringing climate change home. The effects in North Carolina are described in much greater detail by a recently released summary of findings from a 2013 summit on Public Health and Climate Change sponsored by the Research Triangle Environmental Health Collaborative.
Scientists participating in the summit noted a wide variety of effects. For instance, wetter weather could increase mosquitos and tick-borne disease, rising sea levels could lead to saltwater entering coastal drinking water sources, stronger hurricanes could overwhelm disaster preparedness plans and rural residents could suffer psychological stress as weather swings disrupt agricultural yields and livelihoods.
Despite the emerging threats, North Carolinas leaders from the governor through the General Assembly down to many coastal communities are not sufficiently focused on preparing for climate change. Indeed, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources is easing its oversight at the behest of lawmakers who think less environmental regulation will create jobs. What it will create is a state more vulnerable to forces cracking the ice in Antarctica.
Climate change is not far away. Its here, and its most profound effects are drawing closer. North Carolina needs to take it seriously and get seriously ready.