Glaciologist Dr. Tad Pfeffer Speaks on Arctic Glacier Melting


Tad-Pfeffer-fnContributed by WPCC Student Writers Shannon Carpenter and Jon Goforth

MORGANTON–Arctic glaciers are currently melting at three to four times the previous rates, and the sea level has gradually risen considerably in the past century. “Why?” is a question best answered by the experts, and in this case that would be Dr. Tad Pfeffer, a man who has devoted the past thirty years to the study of glaciers.

As one of this year’s presenters at the Western Piedmont Community College (WPCC) Fall Speakers Forum/Ervin Constitutional Issues Program, Dr. Pfeffer used his expertise as a photographer and glacier researcher to highlight the travails that the glaciers of the world are experiencing. Dr. Pfeffer’s main body of work is his prolonged observation of the Columbia glacier at Prince William Sound in Alaska.

Using time-lapse imagery, he showed how fast the Columbia glacier was breaking off and retreating into the interior of the coastline. Dr. Pfeffer explained that this is not a unique phenomenon confined to just the wilderness of Alaska. In his global travels researching and photographing, he has witnessed–in the Arctic, Greenland, and Iceland–glacial calving at an alarming rate, the consequences of which have led him to become a consultant for the private transportation sector and also an advisor to the United Nations.

Dr. Pfeffer explained how a direct correlation could be made between rising ocean levels and the speed at which glacial calving is occurring. He showed the audience elaborate charts that fully articulated that the more carbon dioxide that is pumped into the air, the faster the retreat of the Columbia Glacier. Ice core samples taken from all over the globe have shown a long-term ebb and flow of the world’s glaciers up until the Industrial Revolution. From that period until the present time, the amount of detectable carbon dioxide in these samples has expanded exponentially.

The Emmy-award winning documentary Chasing Ice, in which Pfeffer appears, shows the rapid progress of calving, the breaking off of ice chunks at the edges of these massive glaciers. The situation has escalated to the point that Alaskan oil tankers take measures to avoid these giant floating chunks that are now making their way down into shipping lanes. One reason calving is occurring at such a rate is because people in the past century have contributed the highest level of atmospheric pollution in history with every new automobile and gas-powered generator.

Although this issue may seem far from making trouble for western North Carolina, the fact is we are and will be greatly affected as well. In Dr. Pfeffer’s own words, “The polar regions are connected to the rest of the earth; it’s not a distant or remote place that has nothing to do with our affairs. It’s changing, and we should pay attention to that change and try to understand what it is.”

Dr. Pfeffer closed by saying that while the Internet is full of pictures and a host of studies that claim various results, the only way to grasp what is happening with our planet’s ecosystem is to devote an extended period of time to observation and then to interpret the data without personal feelings getting in the way.

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Western Piedmont Community College is situated in the picturesque rolling foothills of Morganton, North Carolina, and has served the citizens of Burke County since 1964.  Each year, more than 10,700 students pursue personal enrichment, new skills for a job or career, high school diplomas, college degrees, and transfer pathways. The application due date for new students for Spring Semester 2015 is Tuesday, Dec. 9.  Apply online or visit the Western Piedmont campus to apply in person.