I’ve written occasionally on this blog about facts and figures I find it hard to conceive of, to imagine, or in today’s vernacular, to wrap my mind around. Some things are just so immense or so tiny or so hot that I can’t see them in my mind’s eye without some sort of cognitive dissonance that makes it impossible to imagine. Like fingernails on a blackboard during a performance of Debussy’s “La Mer.” Here’s another: I’ve heard there are five million cubic miles of ice on the Earth, mostly in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It of course varies from season to season, swelling in the winter and melting in the summer, though the Antarctic ice doesn’t change as much as Arctic. Yet I find that hard to imagine on any reasonable scale.
What makes that number so important nowadays is, as most are now aware, that ice is melting, and each year the Arctic ice in the summer retreats farther and farther away from land, and that just adds to the water in the ocean. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will have to reach approximately 500 to 800 parts per million (ppm) before all that ice will be melted, and that probably won’t happen for several hundred, or even a thousand years. And all that melting will cause a sea level rise of 216 feet overall. That’s not a huge number—it’s about the height of a 22-story building—but the effects over the face of the Earth will be so big that it has become another immense thing I have trouble conceiving. (I hope by the time that happens the US will have converted to the metric system completely; 216 feet is 65.8 meters.) New York City will be almost completely inundated; the Mississippi river will be flooded well inland; Florida and New Orleans will all but disappear—I’m sure you can visualize for yourself the idea. I live in Albuquerque. At five thousand feet above mean sea level, this city will be relative immune to the sea level rise. However, we won’t be immune to the effects in other ways: population migration, loss of habitat, loss of shipping ports, loss of arable land, and so on. I’m not the one to try to estimate the overall effects, that’s for the experts who have access to all the data and computers which can crunch all the data, but I’m sure those effects will be devastating. A lot worse than no more Walt Disney World.