(Another) Open Letter To Sen. James Inhofe

Dear Senator Inhofe:

You are famously a denier of anthropogenic climate change. You’re the author of The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, a title that is perhaps unintentionally ironic. The greatest hoax, as things have developed since, is your claim of a giant conspiracy.

The latest proof of that is in. Still more of the Larsen Ice Shelf is collapsing. What’s that? You’ve never heard of the Larsen Ice Shelf. WC isn’t surprised.

There’s a continent on the southern end of the planet Earth, Senator Inhofe. It’s called Antarctica. Oddly, it’s not mentioned in the Bible. Antarctica is quite large and – this is the important part – it’s 99.5% covered in ice. Ice as thick as 2.1 miles in places. If all that ice were to melt, ocean levels would rise by more than 100 feet. Oklahoma might stay dry, but your sister state of Texas would suffer mightily, and Florida would drown. Can we agree it would be a bad thing if all that ice were to melt?

Larsen Ice Shelf, the Simple Version (from The Guardian)

Larsen Ice Shelf, the Simple Version (from The Guardian)

Antarctica not only has immense amounts of ice on its land; much of the continent is surrounded by an apron of ice sitting on nothing more than the Southern Ocean. Those photos of ice cliffs hundreds of feet high? Those are the ice aprons, called ice shelves.

The Larsen Ice Shelf is one of those ice shelves. Like others, it floats on the Southern Ocean. Several very large glaciers run down to it. The Ice Shelf serves as a kind of flow restrictor, you know, like the widget in a shower head or faucet that limits the amount of water that can come out.

Huge ice shelves like the Larsen operate as flow restrictors on the glaciers that feed them. They greatly slow down, by as much as a factor of ten, the rate at which those feeder glaciers dump ice into the ocean. This is a good thing. Without those ice shelves, the rte at which ice would flow of the Antarctic continent would be much, much faster.

The Larsen Ice Shelf has three parts, labeled, prosaically enough, A, B and C. The much smaller Larsen A and B ice shelves collapsed catastrophically in 1995 and 2002 respectively. Science has shown that the glaciers that had their flows restricted by Larsen A and Larsen B greatly accelerated after the ice shelves collapsed, just as more water comes out of your shower head if you remove the flow restrictor. More ice is flowing into the Southern Ocean. That’s ice that was previously on land. Unlike a melting iceberg, the increased amounts of ice flowing into the Southern Ocean as a result of the melting of Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves adds, meter by meter, to the rise in global sea levels.

Now science has documented that Larsen C, the remaining fragment of the Larsen ice shelf, is melting. The melt rate is much faster than had been thought; ice is melting from above, as a result of atmospheric warming, and from below, as a result of warming of the Southern Ocean. Because of the accelerated melting, Larsen C is expected to break up between now and 2100. The thing is, Larsen C is much larger than Larsen A and Larsen B were. The glaciers whose flow Larsen C is restricting are much larger than those freed by the collapse of Larsen A and Larsen B.

Remember, too, that the Antarctic Peninsula,1 the westerly border of the Larsen Ice Shelf, is the place on the planet that is warming most rapidly.

But remember that Larsen C is melting from above and below. The Southern Ocean, not just the atmosphere around the Antarctic Peninsula is warming enough to melt the ice shelf from the under side. Historically, the Southern Ocean has been about 29.5° F.2 The melting point of the ice shelves is about 32° F. The Southern Ocean is very large. That’s an immense amount of water that is warming up.

The Larsen Ice Shelf isn’t the only ice shelf in Antarctica. There are more than a dozen of the buggers. The Larsen is simply the best-studied, because it is the easiest to get to. But the Southern Ocean supports all of those ice shelves. As you read this, Senator, the warming waters of the Southern Ocean are melting the undersides of each of those ice shelves. The flow restrictors, as it were, on each and every glacier in Antarctica that points at the Southern Ocean is failing. Each and everyone of those glaciers is about the start dumping five to ten times as much land-fast ice into the oceans. Each and every ice berg is going to add its volume to the increase in sea level.

Can you see how this might be a problem, Senator? Can you see how a cap and trade carbon tax might be a much preferable alternative to, say, flooding nine-tenths of Florida?

Now you may accuse WC of treating you like an idiot in this letter. But WC has always prided himself in writing to his audience. WC admits he has used a few multi-syllable words in this letter (oops, did it again). But the science isn’t complicated. Look:

CO2 -> Increased warming -> Warmer oceans -> Melting glaciers -> Rising sea levels

It’s happening faster and faster, Senator. It’s getting harder and harder to control.

Is that what you want for your legacy? To be the Benedict Arnold of climate change?


  1. The Antarctic Peninsula is the bit that sticks out and points at the tip of South America, Senator. South America? . . . Well, maybe one of your staff and help you find  South America on a globe. 
  2. Salt lowers the freezing point of water, Senator. Think of how we make ice cream. 

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