Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Always look on the BRIGHT side of... global warming."

The ironic closing song from the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian ("Always Look On the Bright Side of Life"), came to mind after a friend passed this news along.  According to a story in the Daily Mail, dawn came two days early to a coastal settlement in Greenland this winter.

Because of the high latitude there, the sun doesn't rise over the horizon in mid-winter, causing a weeks-long "midday moon/gloom" as opposed to a "midnight sun" in summer.  Normally, the residents of Ilulissat watch it re-appear over the eastern horizon on January 13.  But, according to the Daily Mail, the sun showed its face two days earlier than expected last week.

Is global warming making days longer?

Low horizon: The fishing town of Ilulissat is Greenland's most westerly habitation. Temperatures in Greenland have risen 3C above average over the last year
Ilulissat, western Greenland.

Well, assuming that the report is accurate (I'll assume here that it is), then the answer is a qualified "yes."  In Ilulissat, anyway.

The best-sounding explanation seems to be related to local geography.  Ilulissat lies on the edge of Greenland between the sea and the western flank of the mile-or-more-thick inland ice sheet.  Because the downward-sloping margins of the gigantic ice slab lie low enough to dip below the freezing point in spring/summer/fall, and because of the ongoing warming trend, it stands to reason that the surface of the ice may have dropped somewhat.  That, in turn, might expose the horizon-hugging sun a bit earlier in January.

Again, I don't know if the story is even true.  The reader-comments below the online story certainly do hurl a torrent of abuse at it, but that's sadly typical of any global warming story these days. 

OK, I admit it.  I WANT it to be true.  Even though it suggests that massive environmental changes are afoot, this story is kind of cool, and it seems too crazy-sounding to be fictional.  And it's nice to think of finding a tiny bright spot in what can otherwise be a dark, depressing topic.

I am therefore not going to dig into it any farther online, for fear of finding out that it's a bunch of hooey. Instead, I'm going to take off my "dispassionate scientist cap" now and just run with the idea. 

First thought to play with: how could such a big change happen so suddenly?  The article makes it sound like it all happened within the past year.

Maybe there's a reasonable-sounding mechanism by which such a rapid change could occur.  Greenland's largest outlet glacier, the Jakobshavn Ice Stream, lies nearby.  It's always been a major source of icebergs, and probably spawned the one that sank the Titanic.  Maybe some surge in that outlet has drained enough ice to drop the surface noticeably where the sun normally appears on that particular skyline?

Jakobshavn ice stream draining the main ice sheet, with a conveyor belt of icebergs flowing from right to left.  The edge of the solid stuff at the head of the ice stream has retreated inland over the years.

So with that hypothetical explanation in mind, let's say it's true.  Daylight season is getting longer in Ilulissat, thanks to global warming. And in a warming future, the trend is likely to continue, perhaps until all of the marginal ice is gone.

Now with the aforementioned hypothetical explanation paving the way to more speculation, let's move on to this question...

Isn't that kind of a GOOD thing, in a way?

The more ice that melts, the more sun they get in Ilulissat (and, presumably, all along the eastern and western coastlines).  Longer growing seasons over time could mean more fresh produce on local dinner tables - nowadays, most veggies are imported at great cost, which puts them beyond the reach of many Greenlanders. 

Wouldn't it make for shorter "Seasonal Affective Disorder" seasons, as well?   And cheaper heating and lighting bills?

On the other hand, the longer sunlit season should also add to the local heating trend, I suppose.  More sunlight hitting Greenland's dark, ice-free rind of rock could produce something akin to the urban "heat island" effect that makes cities hotter than they otherwise would be, thanks to heat-absoring roads, roofs, and parking lots.  And if this is true, then maybe it also holds true in Antarctica, which could be scarier.  The unstable ice sheet on the West Antarctic Peninsula is being warmed especially intensely by air and ocean currents, and there's a good chance that much of it could slide off into the ocean as a result.  That would raise global sea levels by several feet over several decades.

If melting has lowered skylines there as well, then maybe locally extended light-seasons could be amplifying ice losses there, too, thereby increasing the risk of a slide-off?   However, there are no "native Antarctican" towns there to have kept track of such things for us, so it's just a guess.

But this is all just speculation, of course.  For all I know, the whole Ilulissat sunrise thing could be fake.  If you find out that it is, DON'T TELL ME.    :)

And besides, we all know that this global warming stuff is just a bunch of propaganda anyway, right?  At least, that's what the critics of the Daily Mail article tell us.  So if global warming has been getting you down, just remember to take Eric Idle's advice - always look on the BRIGHT side of life...

He'll even sing it for you  here, if you like:

Always look on the right side of life...
(Come on guys, cheer up!)
Always look on the bright side of life...
(Worse things happen at sea, you know.)
Always look on the bright side of life...
(I mean - what have you got to lose?)
(You know, you come from nothing - you're going back to nothing.
What have you lost? Nothing!)
Always look on the right side of life...


  1. How about Huayna Potosí, as another example of warming?

  2. Amusing and informative. Enjoy your blogs very much. Nice interview on NCPR by the way. Love the "Heritage Lake(s)" concept.

  3. Thank you, Gunner59, for your kind words of support. I'm looking forward to having time to add some more postings, hopefully later next week. Welcome aboard!