Melting Ice Could Lead to Massive Waves of Climate Refugees

by Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute, Washington D.C., U.S.A.

As the earth warms, the melting of the earth’s two massive ice sheets–Antarctica and Greenland–could raise sea level enormously. If the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, it would raise sea level 7 meters (23 feet). Melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would raise sea level 5 meters (16 feet). But even just partial melting of these ice sheets will have a dramatic effect on sea level rise. Senior scientists are noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projections of sea level rise during this century of 18 to 59 centimeters are already obsolete and that a rise of 2 meters during this time is within range.

Assessing the prospects for the Greenland ice sheet begins with looking at the warming of the Arctic region. A 2005 study, conducted by the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA) team, an international group of 300 scientists, concluded that the Arctic is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the planet. It found that in the regions surrounding the Arctic, including Alaska, western Canada, and eastern Russia, winter temperatures have already climbed by 3-4 degrees Celsius (4–7 degrees Fahrenheit) over the last half-century.

Sheila Watt-Cloutier

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, an Inuit speaking on behalf of the 155,000 Inuits who live in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and the Russian Federation, described their struggle to survive in the fast-changing Arctic climate as “a snapshot of what is happening to the planet.” She called the warming of the Arctic “a defining event in the history of this planet.”

The ACIA report described how the retreat of the sea ice has devastating consequences for polar bears, whose very survival may be at stake. A subsequent report indicated that polar bears, struggling to survive, are turning to cannibalism. Also threatened are ice-dwelling seals, a basic food source for the Inuit.

Since this 2005 report, there is new evidence that the problem is worse than previously thought. A team of scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Center and the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that the ice is melting much faster than climate models had predicted. They found that from 1979 to 2006 the summer sea ice shrinkage accelerated to 9.1 percent a decade. In 2007, Arctic sea ice shrank some 20 percent below the previous record set in 2005. This suggests that the sea could be ice-free well before 2050, the earliest date projected by the IPCC in its 2007 report. Some scientists now think that the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer by 2030, if not earlier. Arctic scientist Julienne Stroeve observed that shrinking Arctic sea ice may have reached “a tipping point that could trigger a cascade of climate change reaching into Earth’s temperate regions.”

Scientists are concerned that “positive feedback loops” may be starting to kick in. This term refers to a situation where a trend already under way begins to reinforce itself. Two of these potential feedback mechanisms are of particular concern to scientists. The first, in the Arctic, is the albedo effect. When incoming sunlight strikes the ice in the Arctic Ocean, up to 70 percent of it is reflected back into space. Only 30 percent is absorbed as heat. As the Arctic sea ice melts, however, and the incoming sunlight hits the much darker open water, only 6 percent is reflected back into space and 94 percent is converted into heat. This may account for the accelerating shrinkage of the Arctic sea ice and the rising regional temperature that directly affects the Greenland ice sheet.

If all the ice in the Arctic Ocean melts, it will not affect sea level because the ice is already in the water. But it will lead to a much warmer Arctic region as more of the incoming sunlight is absorbed as heat. This is of particular concern because Greenland lies largely within the Arctic Circle. As the Arctic region warms, the island’s ice sheet–up to 1 mile thick in places–is beginning to melt.

The second positive feedback mechanism also has to do with ice melting. As an ice sheet’s surface begins to melt, some of the water filters down through cracks in the glacier, lubricating the surface between the glacier and the rock beneath it. This accelerates the glacial flow and the calving of icebergs into the surrounding ocean. The relatively warm water flowing through the glacier also carries surface heat deep inside the ice sheet far faster than would simple conduction.

Several recent studies report that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating. A study published in Science in September 2006 reported that the rate of ice melt on the vast island has tripled over the last several years. In October 2006, a team of NASA scientists reported that the flow of glaciers into the sea was accelerating. Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said, “None of this has been predicted by numerical models, and therefore all projections of the contribution of Greenland to sea level [rise] are way below reality.”

At the other end of the earth, the 2-kilometer-thick Antarctic ice sheet, which covers a continent about twice the size of Australia and contains 70 percent of the world’s fresh water, is also beginning to melt. Ice shelves that extend from the continent into the surrounding seas are starting to break up at an alarming pace.

In May 2007, a team of scientists from NASA and the University of Colorado reported satellite data showing widespread snow-melt on the interior of the Antarctic ice sheet over an area the size of California. Konrad Steffen, one of the scientists involved, observed, “Antarctica has shown little to no warming in the recent past with the exception of the Antarctic Peninsula, but now large regions are showing the first signs of the impacts of warming.”

The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) has analyzed the effect of a 10-meter rise in sea level, providing a sense of what the melting of the world’s largest ice sheets could mean. The IIED study begins by pointing out that 634 million people live along coasts at or below 10 meters above sea level, in what they call the Low Elevation Coastal Zone. This massive vulnerable group includes one eighth of the world’s urban population.

One of the countries most vulnerable is China, with 144 million potential climate refugees. India and Bangladesh are next, with 63 and 62 million respectively. Viet Nam has 43 million vulnerable people, and Indonesia, 42 million. Others in the top 10 include Japan with 30 million, Egypt with 26 million, and the United States with 23 million.

The world has never seen such a massive potential displacement of people. Some refugees could simply retreat to higher ground within their own country. Others–facing extreme crowding in the interior regions of their homeland–would seek refuge elsewhere. Bangladesh, already one of the world’s most densely populated countries, would face a far greater concentration: in effect, 62 million of its people would be forced to move in with the 97 million living on higher ground.

Not only would some of the world’s largest cities, such as Shanghai, Kolkata, London, and New York, be partly or entirely inundated, but vast areas of productive farmland would also be lost. The rice-growing river deltas and floodplains of Asia would be covered with salt water, depriving Asia of part of its food supply.

In the end, the question is whether governments are strong enough to withstand the political and economic stress of relocating large numbers of people while suffering losses of housing and industrial facilities. The relocation is not only an internal matter, as a large share of the displaced people will want to move to other countries. Can governments withstand these stresses, or will more and more states fail?

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Adapted from Chapter 3, “Rising Temperatures and Rising Seas ,” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008), available for free downloading and purchase at



4 thoughts on “Melting Ice Could Lead to Massive Waves of Climate Refugees

  1. We are planning an earthship & permaculture combination, in an area 15 ms above current sea-levels. We are trying desperately to make our friends and family see what is happening – and hit 100% utter denial.
    How do you change people to SEE!?

  2. I couldn’t agree more Chloe. It is abject denial and will cause MASSIVE problems when (not if) the problem hits those who aren’t in the least bit/don’t want to be aware. Couple that with energy depletion/peak oil and the world is in for a tough time. I work in a school and there seems to be no great rush to change the curriculum in order to raise awareness of how imminent these changes may be and what we must do about them. Governments don’t want permaculture (in my humble view, it’s the only option) as it smacks of people power and a lack of need for national, or even regional, governance of the people. And of course it means giving up the standard of living we in the WLDs are used to (which hints at the denial aspect). How to make them see? When they experience events at close hand,thats the only way.

  3. You cant make them see. Dont bother trying. You are figting an uphill battle. I am setting up my little 8 acre farm with enough fruit trees and food growing to feed my family once the s#it hits the fan and they come knocking on my door. Until the day when they cant buy enough food to feed themselves they will not see what I am doing as anything more than a waste of time.

  4. On denial, I strongly want to disagree. Essentially,

    (1) The problem is old. And well known.

    (2) We also know a number of effective, tried and tested ways to do something about it and address this head-on.

    (3) Isolationism may reduce personal frustration, but it certainly is not a constructive step towards preventing really bad things from happening (which is what we all want to).

    If I had to condense all I know by now about denial in a few sentences, that would be:

    (1) There is a scientific theory that has strong experimental support, Leon Festinger’s theory of “cognitive dissonance”. But this just encodes in scientific language what Buddhists have known for a long time about “attachment”. (Basically: The more you emotionally invested in an idea, the harder it becomes to let go. Things get really bad if it became part of your self-image.)

    (2) The human mind is wired up in such a way that it inevitably does a lot of pre-processing of incoming information at different levels. (Optical illusions can teach us a lot about that.) Interestingly, it also is wired up in such a way that, whenever it is confronted information that might be able to endanger a positive self-image, it can temporarily suspend both logical thinking(!) as well as memory. This is a mechanism by which the conscious mind protects itself very effectively from feedback that it is not as important as it tries to make itself believe. An extremely powerful illusion, actually.

    (3) Different people suffer from this to a different degree. Just as there are people who can “see” stereogram images and people who cannot, some are able to not only understand the mechanisms underlying self-deception but also apply that to their own situation, while others cannot overcome it.

    (4) As “everything works in both ways”, it is indeed possible to actually turn the problem into an advantage. How? If self-deception and denial is the root cause of your problems, get active and behave in such a way that (A) those who do not seem to get the message cannot avoid being confronted with your contradicting behaviour, (B) your behaviour does not leave them with any opportunity to find a cheap excuse for not having to look into your position on the issue, and (C) if they try to stay in denial by using force to avoid facing the issue, then this immediately creates a strong inner conflict for them, as they on the one hand try to believe to be the good guys, yet on the other hand get the immediate direct feedback that they are the only ones causing harm. No one can stand such massive dissonance for long, and the more one suffers from self-deception, i.e. the stronger the need to maintain a positive self-image, the more susceptible one is to yielding to this inner conflict.

    Indeed, I would call this the one missing puzzle piece of Permaculture as it is done and taught in the present: understanding some important characteristics of the species Homo sapiens sufficiently well to utilize this for the design of conflict resolution strategies. With regard to this issue, Gandhi shows the way, and successfully demonstrated dozens of times the superiority of this approach to overcoming both denial as well as violent conflict.

    I recently gave a number of courses on self-deception and related issues, see e.g. If you want an accessible introduction, then two books that I would consider a must-read are “Mistakes were made but not by me” by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson,
    as well as the biography “The life of Mahatma Gandhi” by Louis Fischer.

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