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Best Defense

Natural Security: Why you should pay attention to the cryosphere, dammit

There's just an aesthetic pleasure in some words, partly to do with how they sound, but also inextricably tied to what they mean.

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By Sharon Burke
Best Defense energy czarina

There’s just an aesthetic pleasure in some words, partly to do with how they sound, but also inextricably tied to what they mean. Take defenestration — fun to say, but much better when you know it means to throw someone out a window.

Then there’s cryosphere.

The word sounds like some kind of secret realm, possibly involving dead people, but it’s really ice, snow, glaciers, and permafrost. The cryosphere is all the frozen places on Earth, or more specifically, all the frozen water on Earth.

There’s just one problem with the magical ice kingdom: It’s melting.

An article in the New York Times just profiled a new study on the Antarctic ice sheet. This research suggests that climate change may be melting this massive part of the cryosphere much faster than anyone thought, and that would be bad news for the nearly three billion humans who live on the world’s coastlines.

According to the new study, the collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet could mean more than three feet of sea level rise by the end of this century. In the United States, some 285 cities and towns, with a total of 3.7 million people, are less than three feet above sea level. Only six inches of sea level rise in the 20th century has already more than doubled coastal flooding, and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy showed just how ruinous that can be when it’s combined with a storm surge. And the problem is even worse in other parts of the world: one of the globe’s most populous cities, Dhaka (15 million people), is already at sea level.

This new Antarctic study draws its conclusions from data modeling, but if that’s unconvincing, there is plenty of other evidence that the cryosphere is disappearing. This includes sea iceland glaciers, and permafrost.

The melting cryosphere will have significant consequences for both human and hard security, if it’s even useful making a distinction in this case. In addition to humanitarian and disaster relief challenges from flooding, the need to relocate populations and replace freshwater supplies runs a serious risk of provoking conflict, especially in areas with weak governance or a history of violence. There still does not appear to be much research on these potential security consequences of ice melt and sea level rise, however.

So, while the cryosphere may be an unfamiliar term, it means more to us than we know.

Sharon E. Burke, a senior advisor at New America, served as the assistant secretary of defense for operational energy from 2010 to 2014. When the spirit moves, she writes the “Natural Security” column for the Best Defense.

Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio/Goddard Multimedia/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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