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NPR's climate reporters on how climate change is causing ice caps to disappear


Most of the fresh water on earth is frozen in massive ice sheets and glaciers. Now, this is the sound of that ice disappearing.


SIMON: That crackle is caused by the pop of tiny air bubbles and melting ice on the coast of Greenland. As the planet gets hotter, that melt speeds up. Scientists now find that the effects reach thousands of miles away. Reporters from NPR's Climate Desk have been detailing those effects in a series of stories all this week, and they join us now - Lauren Sommer, Rebecca Hersher and Ryan Kellman. Thanks so much, all of you, for being with us.




SIMON: Lauren, let's begin with we if you could, please. Why focus on melting ice?

SOMMER: Yeah. As science reporters, you know, we cover a lot of studies about how fast ice is melting, but it feels really far away to most people, right? What we were hearing from scientists, though, is that the effects of this melting ice are not far away. They're in our backyards. They actually affect our everyday lives.

HERSHER: Yeah, everything from the weather that fuels wildfires, to food for endangered whales, to flooding in major American cities - it's all connected to melting ice. So we thought it was really important to connect those dots for people here in the U.S.

SIMON: Well, Lauren, tell us about some of those faraway connections. What struck you?

SOMMER: Yeah. So we traveled to the Arctic, where there's just this vast blanket of ice that covers the ocean for most of the year. And there's actually a connection all the way to where I live, in California. The community we visited, which was Kotzebue, Alaska - they're watching that sea ice shrink at an alarming rate. And that ice normally reflects a lot of sunlight. It's kind of like a shield. When there's less ice, more heat is absorbed by the ocean. And scientists are finding that seems to be altering weather patterns that ripple all the way down to the Western U.S. It actually increases the chances that there'll be very dry heat waves in the fall. And, you know, that's weather I'm familiar with because it's when really dangerous wildfires happened here in the West - the kind that just seemed really impossible to contain.

I spoke to one firefighter, Mark Macias of the St. Helena Fire Department in Northern California, who has actually fought a fire like that - the Glass Fire, which was three years ago. And it really takes a toll.

MARK MACIAS: You try to do a lot, and it feels like you can't win. And you're trying, you know? Those are the tough ones.

SOMMER: You know, that was a fire I watched as a reporter, but also personally, because we had to evacuate some of my family. And it just really drove home for me that the stakes of these changes - these kind of far-reaching climate effects - are really high.

SIMON: Ryan, let me turn to you because you traveled to Nepal for this series and went to a community where ice, I gather, poses a real danger.

KELLMAN: That's right. We visited a place that's downstream of a huge, unstable lake, and that lake formed because a glacier is melting. And if the lake releases its water, it could wipe out everything downstream in a flash flood. So I walked up to the lake. It's near 16,000 feet, sitting above all these villages, and I couldn't help but think about this gentleman we interviewed who lives right downstream. Like, I could see his farm from where I'm standing at the lake. He told us that he literally sleeps in his clothes every single night in case he has to flee. It struck me how similar his story is to people I talked to not so long ago in a town just 20 minutes from my own home. And I was reporting in this town called Ellicott City. It's in Maryland. And that town also has flash flooding - not from glaciers but still related to climate change. And some folks in that town also told me that they have trouble sleeping because they're so afraid of a flood. It was basically the same story but 10,000 miles apart.

SIMON: Rebecca Hersher, what about your experience reporting on melting ice? Did it strike close to you, too?

HERSHER: Yeah. You know, to a wild degree, because one of the places I was reporting on was the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica. It's sometimes called the Doomsday Glacier because it's melting so quickly, and when it disintegrates, it could cause a ton of sea level rise. But it's very, very far away. I couldn't go there myself, so I worked with a scientist who actually spent weeks living on the glacier doing research. Her name is Erin Pettit, and she's been studying this glacier for many, many years. She felt like she had a handle on how quickly it was melting, but she didn't.

ERIN PETTIT: Everything that we thought had been going on was happening, like, twice as fast. And so everything's been happening a lot faster than we expected it to just a few years ago.

HERSHER: And when I heard Pettit say that, I was really struck by it because if the ice melts faster, then sea level rise here in the U.S. also happens faster, which is so close to home. Like, for this reporting trip, we visited the city of Galveston, Texas, where they're getting ready to build a $34 billion seawall to hold back that water, water that is partly coming from 8,000 miles away in Antarctica. And that connection between Antarctica and the coast - that is true for basically every coastal city from Texas to Maine.

SIMON: With the series, you've made it quite clear that ice melting away can affect us, really, just under our feet. You're reporting on this and watching devastating consequences in many cases. How do you keep perspective on that?

SOMMER: Yeah. I mean, it can be very disheartening - right? - to hear about this, to report on it. But, you know, we did hear a very clear message, you know, especially from scientists, that, yes, these are very severe impacts, but it's not too late to do something about it. You know, the future of this ice depends on what we all do and whether we can cut emissions from burning fossil fuels.

SIMON: Lauren Sommer and Rebecca Hersher, Ryan Kellman, with NPR's Climate Desk. You can see all of their reporting online at npr.org/icemelt. Thank you all for being with us.

HERSHER: You're welcome.

KELLMAN: Thanks for having us.

SOMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.
Ryan Kellman is a producer and visual reporter for NPR's science desk. Kellman joined the desk in 2014. In his first months on the job, he worked on NPR's Peabody Award-winning coverage of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. He has won several other notable awards for his work: He is a Fulbright Grant recipient, he has received a John Collier Award in Documentary Photography, and he has several first place wins in the WHNPA's Eyes of History Awards. He holds a master's degree from Ohio University's School of Visual Communication and a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute.

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