antarcticicesheet
This undated photo courtesy of NASA shows Thwaites Glacier in Western Antarctica. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

The Antarctic ice sheet is a sleeping giant, beginning to stir

In a paper I just published with colleague Dr Ted Scambos from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, we highlight the impact of southern ice sheet loss, particularly the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, on sea-level rise around the world.

We know that human emissions of greenhouse gases are causing the Earth’s temperature to rise and are creating other changes across the Earth’s climate system. One change that gets a great deal of attention is the current and future rates of sea-level rise. A rising sea level affects coastal communities around the world; approximately 150 million people live within 1 meter of current sea level.

The waters are rising because of a number of factors. First, water expands as it warms. In the past, this “thermal expansion” was the largest source of sea-level rise. But as the Earth’s temperatures continued to increase, another factor (melting ice, particularly from large ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica) has played an ever increasing role.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the largest player is the Western Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS). It is less stable than Eastern Antarctica and is particularly vulnerable to melting from below by warmed ocean waters. Scientists are closely watching the ice near the edges of the WAIS because they buttress large volumes of ice that are more inland. When these buttressing ice shelves melt, the ice upstream will slide more rapidly toward the ocean waters.

As reported in our paper, according to some studies, “no further acceleration of climate change and only modest extrapolations of the current increasing mass loss rate are necessary for the system to eventually collapse … resulting in 1-3 metres of sea-level rise.” And this is from just one component of the great southern sheets….more

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