Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Melting Way Faster Than Expected, Scientists Warn

Gwen Vasquez
June 17, 2018

The water hits the edges of the ice sheets from below.

Low-lying cities face the threat of flooding when extreme weather coincides with high tides.

Their report, published Thursday in a special issue of the journal Nature, found evidence that the drift of Antarctic glaciers toward the ocean is accelerating. Since then, however, the melt rate has increased dramatically from an average of about 84 billion tons a year between 1992 and 2011, to more than 241 billion tons a year from 2012 to 2017.

The assessment, led by Professor Andrew Shepherd at the University of Leeds and Dr Erik Ivins at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, was supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). It holds enough water to cause as much as 34 meters of sea level rise if the ice sheet were to melt completely. In the Amundsen Sea Embayment (named after Roald Amundsen, one of the first explorers to reach the South Pole) warming ocean temperatures have reduced the floating ice shelves which slow the flow of the mighty Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers, resulting in a rapid acceleration of ice losses. Researchers have linked this rise in temperature to a host of consequences, including rising sea levels and shrinking polar ice reserves. Antarctica is, on balance, losing its ice sheets and raising the world's sea levels.

The study, which was conducted over two years, applied methods similar to forensic science on ice shelves which had already calved.

Their findings show that, prior to 2012, Antarctica lost ice at a steady rate of 76 billion tonnes per year - a 0.2 mm per year contribution to sea level rise. On the Antarctic Peninsula, ice loss has shot up from around 7 billion metric tons per year to 33 billion metric tons annually.

ESA's Director of Earth Observation Programmes, Josef Aschbacher, added, "CryoSat and Sentinel-1 are clearly making an essential contribution to understanding how ice sheets are responding to climate change and affecting sea level, which is a major concern".

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Though the Antarctic Peninsula is plastered in snow and ice, the region is losing ice at an increasing rate.

"If you start removing mass from there, you can have a very large scale evacuation of ice into the ocean and significant sea level rise", she continued.

"The next piece of the puzzle is to understand the processes driving this change", Durham University's Pippa Whitehouse said.

"There are about 150 different estimates of ice loss from Antarctica and Greenland and they use different methods, they cover different proportions of the ice sheets and they cover different time periods", Shepherd said.

Another component of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, marine-based ice, sits below sea level and is thus directly affected by the ocean.

Greenpeace which is campaigning for a large tract of the ocean surrounding the Antarctic to be made into the world's biggest ocean sanctuary, said government's must heed the warning.

When an ice shelf loses contact with such "pinning points", the glacier reacts as if someone had suddenly released a giant brake. West Antarctica is where most of the thawing has taken place, but that does not mean that East Antarctica is doing any better. "But remember for the northern hemisphere, for North America, the fact that the location in West Antarctica is where the action is amplifies that rate of sea level rise by up to an about additional 25 percent in a city like Boston or NY".

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