Antarctica is losing ice at an increasingly rapid rate

16 June, 2018, 20:39 | Author: Tara Reeves
  • Scientists believe Antarctic ice melt is causing sea levels to rise faster today than at any time in the past 25 years

The study looked at the "mass balance of the Antarctica Ice Sheet between 1992 and 2017", and found that during that time the continent lost three trillion tons of ice and raised sea levels three-tenths of an inch, according to the New York Times.

Some 90 research scientists discovered that in the five year period beginning in 2012, Antarctica lost 219 billion tonnes of ice per year.

"Some of the estimates covered different proportions of the ice sheets, some of them covered different time periods, and all of them used different methods and so it became hard for people who are not specialists to try to pick them apart", says Shepherd.

The West Antarctic ice sheet has lost almost three trillion tonnes of ice during this span - with a large chunk of the numbers coming in the last few years, according to research. Meanwhile, in the Antarctic Peninsula, the annual rate of ice loss increased from around 7 billion tons from 1992 to 2012 to 36 billion tons from 2012 to 2017, largely due to collapsing ice shelves.

Scientists have acknowledged that these sad results surpassed their expectations.

"That's a big jump, and it did catch us all by surprise", Shepherd says. To put that into perspective, the massive iceberg that broke off from Antarctica's Larsen C ice shelf in July 2017 - one of the largest icebergs in recorded history - weighed over 1 trillion tons, and was roughly the size of the state of Delaware. Meanwhile, the team found the East Antarctic ice sheet has remained relatively balanced during the past 25 years, gaining an average of 5.5 billion tons (5 billion metric tons) of ice per year.

The amount of ice that has melted into the sea equates to nearly 8 millimeters of ocean level rise. "The data from GRACE's twin satellites show us not only that a problem exists, but that it is growing in severity with each passing year". "If we do not, they will change dramatically, and through their connections to the rest of the Earth System, result in global impacts with irreversible consequences".

Satellites hailing from University of Maryland, the University of Leeds and the University of California, San Diego, have surveyed decades of satellite measurement to divulge how and why Antarctica's glaciers, ice shelves and sea ice are altering.

While some of that loss is due to natural processes-the calving of coastal glacials is part of the natural life cycle of Antarctica's ice sheets-the research describes what's happening as "an important indicator of climate change". Some 80 percent of that rise would come from the melted Antarctic ice sheet.

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"A critical question for the future is how ocean-driven melting of Antarctic ice shelves will change as the earth warms".

The researchers looked at the three major Antarctic areas: East Antarctica, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.

The study is the most complete analysis yet to measure Antarctica's ice sheet changes.

Ice losses from Antarctica have tripled since 2012, increasing global sea levels by 0.12 inch (3 millimeters) in that timeframe alone, according to a major new worldwide climate assessment funded by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency).

Meanwhile, satellite observations have provided an increasingly detailed picture of sea ice cover, allowing researchers to map the extent, age, motion and thickness of the ice. If it were all to melt, as it has in the past, global sea levels would rise by 58 metres.

"This study shows that we're actually losing more mass along the edges of the ice sheet, where the ice sheet is making contact with the ocean, and that the warming oceans are melting the ice", Koppes said.

Worryingly, the paper demonstrates that the rate of ice loss has tripled in recent times.

How has this research contributed to our understanding of climate change?

The findings, reported in Nature, are part of a special collection of five studies focussed on environmental change in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

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