Antarctica's ice sheet is melting 3 times faster than before

Antarctic Greenpeace conservation arwa damon pkg_00023414

The ice sheets of Antarctica hold enough water to raise global sea level by 58 metres and knowing how much ice it is losing is key to understanding the impacts of climate change today and in the future, according to the assessment. Prior to 2012 the continent was losing ice at a rate of around 76 billion tonnes per year. The melting is happening so fast that it could cause sea levels to rise 6 inches by the end of the century, the study projects.

Antarctica has lost about three trillion tonnes of ice since 1992 and scientists say the window of opportunity to prevent major meltdown of the icesheets is narrowing.

In a new study, the most comprehensive to date of the continent's icy status, an global group of 84 researchers analyzed data from multiple satellite surveys, from 1992 to 2017.

Under high greenhouse gas emissions, the worst-case projections of sea level rise eventually reach over a centimeter each year, said Rob DeConto, an Antarctic expert at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst who was not involved in the current study.

Ice mass loss is clearly speeding up, driven largely by what's going on in West Antarctica. Geological evidence indicates that some marine-based portions of the East and West Antarctic Ice Sheets retreated during parts of the Pliocene, but it remains uncertain whether ice grounded above sea level also experienced retreat. "This has to be a concern for the governments we trust to protect our coastal cities and communities", said Shephard.

"The next piece of the puzzle is to understand the processes driving this change", Whitehouse added. We suggest that Antarctic ice volume variations in response to the range of global temperature experienced over this period - up to 2-3 ̊C above preindustrial, which correspond to future scenarios with Carbon dioxide concentrations between 400 and 500 ppm - are instead driven mostly by retreat of marine ice margins, in agreement with the latest models.

'I think we should be anxious. But in the period between 2012 to 2017, the figure jumps to a staggering 219 billion tonnes per year. This uncertainty persists because global sea level estimates for the Pliocene have large uncertainties and can not be used to rule out substantial terrestrial ice loss, and also because direct geological evidence bearing on past ice retreat on land is lacking.




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

The research team measured isotopes produced by the interaction between cosmic rays and the nucleus of an atom, called cosmogenic nuclides, in glacial sediment from Antarctic's largest ice shelf.

They discovered the acceleration in the rate of ice loss when they did the calculations again for this study, this time with an additional five years of data.

It can be easy to overlook the monstrous scale of the Antarctic ice sheet. Of the three, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest potential contributor to sea level rise.

The study was conducted by a group of researchers as part of the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise, or IMBIE, and published today in the journal Nature.

East Antarctica, which makes up two-thirds of the continent, is a remote region of an already remote location, where data is scarcer because there are fewer measurement stations, Koppes said. "We will not necessarily see exclusively rapid retreat, " said Christianson, noting that as glaciers like Pine Island retreat backwards down a submarine, downhill slope, they will sometimes encounter bumps that slow down their movement.

That's because as Antarctica's mass shrinks, the ice sheet's gravitational pull on the ocean relaxes somewhat, and the seas travel back across the globe to pile up far away - with US coasts being one prime destination.

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