Antarctica ice melting increased by 280 percent in last 16 years

Cristina Cross
January 17, 2019

Warm ocean water chipping away at freshwater ice sheets on the edges of the continent has caused the rapid melting of ice.

For this study, Rignot and his collaborators conducted what he called the longest-ever assessment of remaining Antarctic ice mass. Global sea levels have already risen seven to eight inches since 1900.

"We know that sea levels were 20 to 30 metres higher during past intervals of peak warmth, and while it takes significant time to melt large volumes of ice, these snapshots from the past give us an idea of the possible magnitude of future sea level rise if we do nothing to mitigate climate warming".

Sea ice and an iceberg float as seen from NASA's Operation IceBridge research aircraft in the Antarctic Peninsula region, on November 4, 2017, above Antarctica.

The ice of Antarctica contains 57.2 meters, or 187.66 feet, of potential sea-level rise. Comparing the two records, the New Zealand and Wisconsin researchers recapitulate the history of the Antarctic Ice Sheet throughout most of the past 34 million years, starting when the ice sheet first formed.

Rignot and colleagues studied 18 regions, totaling 176 basins, as well as surrounding islands.

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New research from the University of California at Irvine (UCI) and NASA found the Antarctic lost 40 billion tonnes of melting ice to the ocean each year from 1979 to 1989.

According to the study issued in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed U.S. journal, between 1970 and 2017, the Antarctic melting has increased global sea levels by more than half an inch.

The PNAS study estimated that Antarctica lost 169 billion tonnes of ice from 1992-2017, above the 109 billion tonnes in the same period estimated a year ago by a large global team of researchers.

The most striking finding in Monday's study is the assertion that East Antarctica, which contains by far the continent's most ice - a vast sheet capable of almost 170 feet of potential sea-level rise - is also experiencing serious melting. That includes Cook and Ninnis, which are the gateway to the massive Wilkes Subglacial Basin, and other glaciers known as Dibble, Frost, Holmes and Denman. From 2001 to 2017, the ice melting rate rose by 280 percent to 134 gigatons per year. Previously, climate scientists thought that East Antarctica wasn't so vulnerable to net ice loss, but that may all be wishful thinking.

It's no secret that the frozen continent is melting more rapidly now due to human-induced global warming. The bulk of this melt is not due to to surface melting but rather melting that comes from below. Fast flowing inland ice streams of the West Antarctic are buttressed by floating ice shelves, which - if diminished or lost - raise the possibility of a runaway flow of West Antarctica's marine ice. The ice shelves act as an ocean-facing, protective barrier, keeping land-ice locked in place.

The scientists combined 40 years of satellite images and climate modelling and found the East Antarctic Ice Sheet - considered largely insulated from the ravages of climate change - may also be melting at an accelerating rate.

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