The search for ice in the solar system…and an ultimate irony

Friday morning’s Washington Post contained a few items that make an interesting juxtaposition. The first was a brief squib on page A3 announcing that a NASA probe had discovered “a vast amount” of ice at Mercury’s north pole. [You can find more details on a NASA link here.]

!!! Isn’t this the tiny, heavily-cratered planet so close to the sun that its atmosphere has essentially boiled off? Yes, it’s that very same planet, where temperatures on the sunlight side may get up to 8000 Fahrenheit (here on Earth water boils at a mere 2120 F). At night, those Mercurial temperatures plummet to -2800 F.]

Details on its eccentric orbit and its rotation make interesting reading. One detail is that the tilt of its rotational axis is the smallest of all the planets. That tilt’s difficult to measure from here, but may be as small as .027 degrees. That turns out to be the key to the survival of ice on mercury. The ice is trapped in craters near Mercury’s north pole that are never exposed to sun, in layers that may be a few feet to a few tens of feet thick. To give the scale, the Post report suggests that the amount of ice may be sufficient to bury an area the size of Washington, DC to a depth of two or so miles…comparable to the thickness of the ice sheets that covered much of North America during the most recent Ice Age.

The same issue of the Post carried an article on page 5 by Daniel Fears entitled Comprehensive study affirms loss of polar ice has accelerated. According to that article, the rate of Greenland’s ice melt is five times greater than it had been in the mid-1990’s, this from a study attempting to pull together and reconcile research results from the past couple of decades. Antarctic melting is also accelerating, though not so fast.

And on the editorial page, Eugene Robinson devoted his column to the UN climate talks underway in Doha, Qatar. You can find his full column online, but here’s an extended excerpt:

You might not have noticed that another round of U.N. climate talks is under way, this time in Doha, Qatar. You also might not have noticed that we’re barreling toward a “world . . . of unprecedented heat waves, severe drought, and major floods in many regions.” Here in Washington, we’re too busy to pay attention to such trifles.

We’re too busy arguing about who gets credit or blame for teeny-weeny changes in the tax code. Meanwhile, evidence mounts that the legacy we pass along to future generations will be a parboiled planet.

That quote about heat, drought and flooding comes from a new World Bank report warning of the consequences of warming. The study, titled “Turn Down the Heat,” tries to assess what will happen if temperatures are allowed to rise by 4 degrees Celsius — about 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit — above pre-industrial levels, before humans began spewing massive amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The picture is beyond bleak.

We’re talking about a world in which extreme weather events become commonplace — tropical cyclones that devastate coastal cities unaccustomed to such storms, punishing summer temperatures in regions unprepared to cope. In other words, lots more of the anomalous phenomena we’ve already been experiencing, such as the 2010 heat wave in Russia that caused thousands of deaths.

We’re talking about a sea-level rise of up to three feet. Recall what Hurricane Sandy did to New York City and the New Jersey coastline. Now imagine the storm surge being three feet higher than it was.

Developed nations will, of course, find ways to deal with living in a warmer world. But the story is likely to be different in poorer countries, which will struggle to deal with lower crop yields, possible water shortages and stressed ecosystems. The World Bank report notes, almost as an aside, that “some areas in sub-Saharan Africa may face a 50 percent increase in the probability for malaria transmission” because disease-carrying species of mosquitoes will be able to survive in areas that now are inhospitable.

Two weeks ago, my daughter went on facebook asking if anyone could give her an example of  “irony” that she could use to help her seven-year-old son correctly grasp the concept.

Could be, after two weeks, we’ve found an example she can use. Discovering ice on a truly parboiled planet even as we’re losing ice on ours, many times distant from the sun?

Could be ironic.

Good news is, if we lose our ice here, we now know where to get some. Maybe with a little Star Wars technology, we could go get some, bring it back.

Maybe do a little chemical analysis.

Jamie, if you agree, maybe you could post a comment…

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