Epic Antarctic ice sheet melt speeding up sea level rise

Terry Joseph
June 15, 2018

But 40 per cent of that increase came from the last five years of the study period, from 2012 to 2017, when the ice-loss rate accelerated by 165 per cent. What is most concerning, is that nearly half of this ice loss has occurred in the past five years.

Basically, the current rate of melting in Antarctica has boosted the sea level rise by 0.3 millimeters per year since 1992.

The East and West Antarctic ice sheets have enough mass accumulated to raise the world's ocean levels by a staggering 58 metres if it all melted - enough to submerge a 14-story office building - and as the planet continues to warm due to the increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, we are picking away at ice mass at a faster and faster rate.

Scientists have acknowledged that these sad results surpassed their expectations.

"The satellite measurements tell us that the ice sheet is much more dynamic than we used to think", he said.

The researchers concluded that the changes in East Antarctica were not almost enough to make up for the rapid loss seen in West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.

This is leading to sea levels rising by 0.6mm a year - three times higher than in 2012 when the last assessment of Antarctica was undertaken. The Antarctic Peninsula is also shedding ice, though at a less rapid clip, while East Antarctica has remained fairly steady.

This chart shows the contribution to global sea levels due to changes in the mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet between 1992 and 2017.

"They're melting the ice at rates that far exceed anything that would change in the air, and these are forces that you can't reverse easily".

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West Antarctica is now bearing the brunt of this loss, as its glacial ice shelves have been melted from below by warming deep ocean water.

Pine Island is now losing about 45 billion tons per year, and Thwaites is losing 50 billion.

"The next piece of the puzzle is to understand the processes driving this change", Whitehouse added.

East Antarctica has sometimes been a focus of attention for people who deny the science of global warming. If the rate does not increase, that would imply that sea level would rise by an average of 10 inches by 2100.

It can be easy to overlook the monstrous scale of the Antarctic ice sheet.

The changes will not be steady, in any case, said Knut Christianson, an Antarctic researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, by email. And because of the massive amount of ice on the eastern side of Antarctica, we shouldn't take for granted that it's protected from the ice loss being experienced on the other side of the continent.

"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. "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". "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", Andrew Shephard, lead author of the study and a professor at the University of Leeds, said in a statement.

Ekwurzel at the Union of Concerned Scientists said the study's findings mean "we have to go back and tell coastal planners that it may be worse than scientists thought before".

Rising sea levels can have a risky impact on coastal habitats and communities as flooding increases along with higher tides and stronger storm surges.

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