Antarctica lost an unprecedented amount of ice in the last five years

14 June, 2018, 06:06 | Author: Kelly Sanders
  • The late summer sun sets over mountains and icebergs around Adelaide Island Antarctic Peninsula as 24-hour daylight gives way to the long polar night of winter. Credit BAS  Hamish Pritchard

The findings should dispel any lingering doubts that the continent's ice mass is shrinking, the authors said.

While that won't happen overnight, Antarctica is indeed melting, and a study published Wednesday (June 13) in the journal Nature shows that the melting is speeding up. Overall, they find that since 1992, the frozen continent has lost about 2.7 trillion tons of ice into the oceans raising sea level by an additional about 7.6 millimeters (0.3 inch) during that period. "Since around 2010, 2012, we can see that there's been a sharp increase in the rate of ice loss from Antarctica". "This has to be a concern for the governments we trust to protect our coastal cities and communities", said Shephard.

Millimeters of sea level rise may not sound like much, but previous surveys suggested that Antarctica's massive ice sheets likely wouldn't be affected by climate change at all.

Satellites that scanned Antarctic ice with altimeters gathered evidence about its volume; another type of satellite measurement tracked the speed of glacial flow into the ocean; and a third type of observation calculated the gravity of land masses around the planet, weighing the ice sheets in their entirety.

Scientists have completed the most exhaustive assessment of changes in Antarctica's ice sheet to date.

Some studies had suggested a net gain in mass over recent decades.

He argued that sea-ice loss needs to be considered in future modelling in order to more accurately forecast the contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet to sea-level rise in coming decades.

His team analysed the Larsen A and Larsen B, and Wilkins ice-shelf disintegration events, and found that lack of sea-ice was a common factor.

A glacier is seen in Half Moon Bay, Antarctica. Together, they act as corks holding back ice mass further inland from falling into the ocean. However, in the last five years, it too has begun to lose ice, perhaps as much as 28 billion tons per year, although the uncertainty surrounding this number remains high.


The researchers attribute the increased losses in West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsular to changes in regional floating-ice shelves, which can provide a buffer to continental-ice sheets.

"We are confident in our understanding of ice mass change in Antarctica and its impact on sea levels". The tally has since jumped to 0.6mm a year. Since 1993, the global ocean watermark has gone up by 84.8 mm (3.3 inches).

Under any scenario, oceans will continue to rise for several centuries, scientists say.

Overall between 1992 and 2017, Antarctica's ice sheet lost 3 trillion tons of ice - enough water to cover Texas to a depth of almost 13 feet, scientists calculated.

"According to our analysis, there has been a steep increase in ice losses from Antarctica during the past decade, and the continent is causing sea levels to rise faster today than at any time in the past 25 years", Shepherd said. If all of the glaciers on the southern continent were to melt then sea level would rise by 58 meters (190 feet).

Scientists not involved with the study lauded its methodology.

"Satellites have given us an awesome, continent-wide picture of how Antarctica is changing", said Dr. Pippa Whitehouse, a member of the IMBIE team from Durham University, according to a University of Leeds press release.

"The outcome is deeply concerning", commented Imperial College London professor Martin Siegert, who did not take part in the study. That is at the upper end of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated Antarctica alone could contribute to sea-level rise this century.

One of those studies, co-authored by physical oceanographer and climate scientist Steve Rintoul at Australia's CSIRO contemplates a grim choose-your-own-adventure style environmental dilemma - contrasting what Antarctica is projected to look like in the year 2070 if today's high greenhouse emissions remain unchanged, versus the preferable trajectory if climate action reins in carbon pollution.

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