The Bigger Picture



Early February 2020, satellite images from the European Space Agency show a massive iceberg split from a glacier in Antarctica. For scale, the calving produced an iceberg bigger than the city of Seattle, twice the size of Washington D.C., about the same size as Las Vegas, and roughly the same size as the nation of Malta. According to the European Space Agency, the glacier's now floating ice lake has an average thickness of approximately 500 meters.


The chunk broke off from the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica, which helps connect the West Antarctic Ice Sheet with the ocean. It is usually difficult to capture calving’s, according to the United Kingdom's Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling. That is because most of the processes that drive calving are hidden below the water, and satellites typically pass overhead only once a day, oftentimes missing the moment of action. Pine Island, however, is shrinking fast. Its rapid disintegration has made it one of the most "intensively and extensively investigated glaciers" in the Antarctic.


The heightened attention on Pine Island led scientists to spot growing cracks in satellite images of the glacier last year. "Since then, scientists have been keeping a close eye on how quick the cracks were growing”, the agency wrote. Along with its neighbor the Thwaites Glacier, Pine Island has continuously lost ice over the last 25 years.


After February’s historic calving, the iceberg quickly shattered into many smaller pieces. What these pieces will do to overall sea level rise remains unknown. However, Richard Larter, a polar marine scientist, warned that the iceberg is "part of an ice shelf at the terminus of a glacier containing enough ice to raise the sea level by more than 1.5 feet. Also, according to the European Space Agency's website, ice loss from Pine Island has already contributed more to sea-level rise over the past four decades than any other glacier in Antarctica.


The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest-warming places on Earth. During the first week of February, the weather on the Peninsula was sunny and a preliminary record-breaking 65 degrees Fahrenheit - warmer than most of Texas. Recent research indicated that Antarctica is highly vulnerable to projected increases in ocean temperatures and may drive ice-climate feedbacks that further amplify warming.


Scientists are concerned that such events are becoming increasingly common as the glacier flows into the sea via a floating ice shelf. If the shelf destabilizes sufficiently, the glacier - like Thwaites nearby - could begin a rapid and potentially unstoppable cycle of ice loss, since the land upon which the ice rests dips downward as one heads inland. This could allow relatively mild ocean waters to penetrate well inland, melting more ice and speeding its movement into the sea.



Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has risen sharply in the past year… again. Data released by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that clearings have increased by a third compared to previous years. It is the second steep hike under President Jair Bolsonaro, who has made good on his campaign promise to loosen environmental law enforcement and step up the development in the Amazon.


The numbers come from Brazil's Real Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER), which uses moderate resolution satellite images to quickly identify new forest clearings and alert authorities of possible illegal deforestation. More than 3,400 miles of primary forest cover has already disappeared from the Amazon since August 2019 compared to 2,600 miles of the previous year. An estimated 464 square miles of Amazon tree cover was slashed from January to April, a 55% increase from the same period last year and an area roughly 20 times the size of Manhattan, according to INPE.


Although research from Brazil's Real Time Deforestation Detection System (DETER) cannot identify the exact causes of deforestation, other studies show that vast majority of clearings are illegal carried out by ranchers, loggers, miners, and land grabbers  who are seeking profit from the exploitation of public forest land. 


Deforestation has been slowly rising in Brazil since 2013, but President Bolsonaro’s actions and words have given deforestation a huge boost. In 2019, Bolsonaro called estimates from DETER a lie and then fired the INPE director, Ricardo Galvao. Numbers later released by a more high-tech monitor system, Amazon Deforestation Satellite Monitoring System (ADSMS), were even worse than what DETER had announced. The ADSMS showed that between August 2018 and July 2019, 1,100 miles have been cleared- a 34% increase.


The resurgence of deforestation- by far the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from Brazil- is a “disaster for Brazils international reputation” says Luiz Aragao, head of INPE’s Remote Sensing Division. The country is now under increasing pressure from foreign governments and investors to protect the forest, along with carbon and biodiversity, or face harsh diplomatic consequences.


Brazil has been under withering criticism over how much land is being cleared and burned, which has turned into wildfires. As response, Bolsonaro recreated the Amazon Council, composed largely of military officers, to oversee the development of the region. He has also made the use of fire in the Amazon illegal for the next several months. If properly enforced, these measures may indeed help reduce deforestation, but the livelihood of this great forest demands better treatment. Many foreign governments are needing to see greater urgency in saving the trees and all of the species whose home is the Amazon.

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Africa is on its way to completing the next world wonder- a 5,000-mile belt of greenery and conservation initiatives covering the continents entire width. The Great Green Wall is an African-led movement designed to breathe life into the continent degraded landscapes across the Sahel. Proposed 13 years ago by two of the continent’s elder statesmen, Nigeria’s then president Olusegun Obasanjo and Senegal’s former president Abdoulaye Wade, it is even more important now, given the threat from climate change and the reliance of the continent’s people on agriculture for their livelihoods.


This area is experiencing a slew of ecological crises due to overgrazing, drought, and poor farming practices. At the same time, desertification is on the rise. The Sahara Desert has expanded by 10% since 1920. The ambitious Great Green Wall, which will be Earths largest living structure once complete, is designed to save the Sahel from ecological implosion.


The Great Green Wall was initially designed to build a string of trees across the continent to curb desertification, but there were some problems early on. Many of the first planted trees and greenery died, so leaders acknowledged it was the time for a change. The Great Green Wall team studied, indigenous land use techniques and adapted their methodology. The project’s focus has widened from its founders’ vision because there are more ways to restore degraded land than by reforestation, such as creating communal gardens and nature reserves. The addition of these and other measures has made the green wall more complex. It has required different ministries in individual countries to work together, which is no easy task.


The project evolved from a wall of trees to a continent-wide movement. In some areas there is tree planting, some are growing grass. In other cases, it is a mix of both. The assessment report tries to look on the bright side. It says that 11 countries along the green wall have re-habilitated nearly 4 million hectares of land and created 350,000 jobs in the process. It also confirms that a broader group of 21 African countries is committed to restoring and rehabilitating 100 million hectares of land by 2030, creating 10 million green jobs. 


This regreening is truly transformational, for both the land and the people. The constant uphill battle for the project is to keep it in the priorities of government officials and to keep the funding going. Experts have stated that the Great Green Wall will not be done any time soon. Reports suggest that the progress has been very slow and will most likely be completed by 2030.