A Nostradamus for today: 1978 forecast of Antarctic melt

On a recent book tour, promoting his delightful new memoir Little Failure, the mordantly funny essayist/novelist Gary Schteyngart — who in his last book predicted an economic crash, urban chaos, and the rise of a movement that sounded very much like Occupy — joked that he was "the Nostradamus of two weeks from now."

The joke brings to mind the remarkable achievement of an Ohio State glaciologist named John Mercer, who back in l978 precisely foresaw the break-up of the West Antartic ice sheet, which two studies published two weeks ago revealed has already begun. 

As the those crazy radicals at the Toledo Blade revealed today, Mercer wrote:

“I contend that a major disaster — a rapid 5-meter rise in sea level, caused by deglaciation of West Antarctica — may be imminent or in progress after atmospheric CO2 [carbon dioxide] content has only doubled. This concentration of CO2 will be reached within about 50 years if fossil fuel continues to be consumed at its recent accelerating rate, or within about 200 years if consumption is held constant at today’s level,” Mr. Mercer wrote in his paper.

The newspaper goes on to point out:

Mr. Mercer’s forecast was largely validated recently by evidence presented in two major scientific papers published in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

Those papers show the breakup of West Antarctica has already begun, and that the pending disaster Mr. Mercer warned about in 1978 is now virtually unstoppable.

About the only thing mankind can do is slow down the rate of melting through greenhouse gas reductions, according to the latest research.

Mr. Mercer alluded to that in his 1978 paper too, when he said the industrialized world needs “to make the changeover from fossil fuels to other sources of energy.”

Or as Wikipedia put it:

Following John T. Hollin's work (1962) suggesting that climatic warming and rising sea-level cause Antarctic ice shelves to retreat , Mercer postulated that the West Antarctic ice sheet, being grounded well below sea-level and terminating in floating ice shelves, was vulnerable to these changes and may have collapsed altogether during the last interglacial when Antarctica may have been warmer and sea-level may have been higher. In 1978, in the science magazine Nature , Mercer pointed out that "green-house" warming from burning fossil fuel could have the same effect during the present interglacial. Two studies published 12 May 2014 may appear to confirm Mercer's assumption.[1][2]

But the newspaper also took the time to give us some of the marvelous character (not to deny eccentricities) of the far-sighted Mercer, an explorer of Antarctica as well as a scientist, who perhaps not coincidentally came from England.

Johnmercer"Mr. Mercer was so focused on his research that he was less concerned about material things in life, such as his attire, almost to a comical degree.

His favorite shirt, according to Mr. Denton, was a Mickey Mouse shirt.

One of his best friends, Keith Mountain, associate professor and chairman of the University of Louisville’s geography and geosciences department, recalled one particular gaudy pair of red-and-white canvas tennis shoes that were obviously too large for him.

Mr. Mercer told people he liked them because he caught a deal on them “and the price was right,” Mr. Mountain said.

Mr. Mercer had a large office at OSU, but it was notoriously full of clutter. Piles of papers were stacked everywhere.

“John discarded nothing,” Mr. Mountain said. “But he seemed to know where everything was. It was impressive.'”


Related articles

Eccentric OSU scientist vindicated
'It's a Game Changer': NASA Warns of 'Unstoppable' Antarctic Ice Sheet Melt
The Big, Scary News About Melting Antarctic Ice Is Just the Beginning

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: