Skepticism is always a good thing. Then again, sometimes it happens to be wrong.
That has been the case this weekend with my doubts about the European Space Agency’s warnings that the collapse of an ice bridge connecting the Wilkins Ice Shelf to dry land could be imminent. The European Space Agency had claimed the same thing about 10 months ago, and nothing happened then, I pointed out. “We’ll believe it when we see it,” I wrote.
Well, now I’ve seen it, and I believe it. Hours after I wrote about my skepticism, the ice bridge burst apart, making the Wilkins Ice Shelf much more vulnerable to collapse than it was just yesterday morning.
If the Wilkins Ice Shelf breaks apart and melts, its surface area will no longer reflect energy from the sun as efficiently as it had. Waters in the area will increase in temperature at a faster rate, and transfer some of that increased temperature to ice melting on nearby land. The Wilkins Ice Shelf will also no longer serve as a physical block on ice flowing into the sea from the Antarctic continent and islands close by. For these reasons, the loss of that restraining ice bridge to the Wilkins Ice Shelf could prove to be part of a global trend that will affect human societies far from the South Pole: Sea level rise.
Am I sorry that I expressed skepticism that the ice bridge would soon collapse? Not at all. The value of skepticism doesn’t come from always being correct, but in increasing focus on the asking questions that might otherwise go unasked. There’s no harm that comes from skepticism, even when it’s wrong. On the contrary, skeptical inquiry encourages a balanced approach – dealing with risks to a reasonable amount, but not going overboard in reaction to every imagined threat.