Antarctica's melt quickens, risks metres of sea level rise


"The mass loss is dominated by enhanced glacier flow in areas closest to warm, salty, subsurface circumpolar deep water, including East Antarctica, which has been a major contributor over the entire period", a statement in the study said.

Professor Eric Rignot, lead author and chair of Earth system science at UCI, said they were surprised to find the melting they detected was far more significant than scientists originally believed, especially in the East Antarctica sheet - the largest ice sheet on the planet.

"Our main concern is just trying to figure out what's going to happen to those ice sheets in the future so that we can perhaps better prepare for resulting change particularly as sea levels go up".

This ice loss contributes to sea level rise, and the team found that Antarctica's melting ice caused sea levels around the world to rise by 1.27 centimeters (0.5 inches) during the decades focused on in the study.

"What this study does is characterize the growth and decay of the Antarctic ice sheet and sheds light on what is forcing it to change", explains Meyers.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was a collaborative effort by glaciologists from the University of California, Irvine, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Netherlands' Utrecht University.

First measured in the late 1950s by UW-Madison glaciologist Charles Bentley, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet alone contains enough ice to raise sea level by roughly 5 meters. A new study, however, asserts that East Antarctica is also losing weight at a worrying clip. A study from a year ago found little to no loss of ice from East Antarctica, notes the Associated Press.

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Ice mass balance of Antarctica from 1979 to 1989 compared to 2009 to 2017.

"[But] the places undergoing changes in Antarctica are not limited to just a couple places".

"This region is probably more sensitive to climate change than has traditionally been assumed, and that's important to know, because it holds even more ice than West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula together", said Rignot.

That kind of sea-level rise would result in the inundation of island communities around the globe, devastating wildlife habitats and threatening drinking-water supplies.

The melting rate increased drastically in the new century.

The Nansen ice shelf.

Another troublesome finding in the study was the fact that East Antarctica has also been losing ice significantly over the same time period. "If we fail to achieve carbon dioxide emissions targets and Earth's average temperature warms more than 2 degrees Celsius, sea ice will diminish and we jump into a world that is more similar to that last experienced during the early to mid-Miocene", says Levy, referencing a geological epoch that ended about 14 million years ago when the Earth and its polar regions were much more temperate, with an atmosphere supercharged with carbon dioxide and global temperatures, on average, warmer by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius (7 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit). And, since the bottom of the ice shelf is exposed to the ocean, which is warming up, it can melt the underside of the shelf and cause it to thin or break off into the ocean.