Epic Antarctic ice sheet melt speeding up sea level rise

Ice loss in Antarctica is increasingly contributing to global sea level rise

According to a new study by the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE), now considered to be the most complete and up-to-date picture of the changes happening to the Antarctic ice sheet, satellites had been recording a fairly steady rate of ice loss from Antarctica, of around 76 billion tonnes per year, between 1992 and 2012. If all of the glaciers on the southern continent were to melt then sea level would rise by 58 meters (190 feet).

Looking closer, the rapid, recent changes are nearly entirely driven by the West Antarctic ice sheet, which scientists have long viewed as an Achilles' heel.

The study is the product of a large group of Antarctic experts who collectively reviewed 24 recent measurements of Antarctic ice loss, reconciling their differences to produce the most definitive figures yet on changes in Antarctica. Coastal communities along the USA could feel the impact of a continued increase as melting ice adds to sea level rise, say experts. Some 80 percent of that rise would come from the melted Antarctic ice sheet.

West Antarctica contributed the most ice loss from the continent, shedding almost 160 billion tonnes each year since 2012.

"According to our analysis, there has been a step 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".

"The satellite measurements tell us that the ice sheet is much more dynamic than we used to think", he said. That's up from 84 billion tons ten years ago, and 54 billion tons ten years before that.

An global team of researchers, including scientists from NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), published their findings in the journal Nature Wednesday.

West Antarctica, however, has proven far more vulnerable to global warming, especially the Antarctic Peninsula, where more than 6,500 square kilometres (2,500 square miles) of ice shelves have sheared off into the sea since 1995.

"Satellites have given us an incredible, 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 increasing mass loss that they're finding is really worrying, particularly looking at the West Antarctic, the area that's changing most rapidly and it's the area that we're most anxious about, because it's below sea level, " said Christine Dow, a glaciologist at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was not involved in the research.

The result also reinforces that nations have a short window - perhaps no more than a decade - to cut greenhouse gas emissions if they hope to avert some of the worst consequences of climate change. A tripling every decade, were it to continue, would reach that volume of sea level rise even sooner.

That would imply an annual sea level increase of more than 20 millimeters (0.78 inches) per year; 7 times the current ratae and more than ten times the rate experienced during the 20th century.

"The fate of Antarctica, the fate of Greenland, is the fate of Miami", she said.

Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds, who leads the Ice sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (Imbie), said it had always been suspecting changes in Earth's climate would affect the polar ice sheets. But clues from the geologic record suggest that the climate change driving ice loss in Antarctica is doing so much faster than during its periods of ice loss in the distant past, Shepherd told Live Science.

Whether Antarctic mass loss keeps worsening depends on choices made today, argues DeConto, who co-authored a separate paper in this week's Nature outlining two different visions for Antarctica's future in the year 2070.

"This has to be a concern for the governments we trust to protect our coastal cities and communities", says Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds, one of the study leads. If the rate does not increase, that would imply that sea level would rise by an average of 10 inches by 2100.

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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