Melting away: Antarctica ice loss increases six-fold since 1979

17 January, 2019, 00:23 | Author: Sherry Houston
  • Reuters  Alexandre Meneghini  File

Antarctica contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 57 metres if it ever all melted, a process that would require far higher temperatures than now and thousands of years.

"In order for us to really ensure that we don't lose too much ice, we really need to work hard at getting those emissions - at least keeping them at what they are today but even trying to get them lower than they are today, we certainly can't let them get higher because all the evidence suggests that's just not good for the ice sheets". But, because of the massive pressure, the glacier flows like a very viscous liquid towards the ocean (at a rate so slow it's impossible to perceive the movement), slowly leaving the continent in the form of icebergs and other pieces of floating ice that eventually melt altogether.

According to the government space agency, melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica has increased the global sea level more than a millimeter per year, which is a third of the overall increase. The team looked at aerial and satellite images of 18 Antarctic regions, which included 176 basins and some surrounding islands, to see how they had changed over the past four decades.

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.

The study did not find a corresponding increase in the long-term trend of snowfall accumulation in the interior of Antarctica, which had been previously believed to counter the ice loss and minimize sea level rise.

"Persistent sea ice appears to have helped maintain a degree of stability in the Antarctic Ice Sheet". 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. Significant ice loss is experienced by the Cook, Ninnis, Dibble, Frost, Holmes, and Denman glaciers.

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A landmark study published in Nature in June previous year found that Antarctic ice melt had tripled since 1992, but did not show significant melting in the east.

"This region is probably more sensitive to climate than has traditionally been assumed, and that's important to know, because it holds even more ice than West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula together", he added.

Due to global warming, which speeded up itself in the past few decades, Antartica ice loss has accelerated by six times since the 1970s. The bulk of this melt is not due to to surface melting but rather melting that comes from below. In fact, a major analysis published last June - which most of the new study's authors participated in - concluded that on the whole, East Antarctica hasn't been losing ice at all.

This Nov. 11, 2016, file photo shows the Taylor Glacier near McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

Antarctic glaciers have been melting at an accelerating pace over the past four decades thanks to an influx of warm ocean water - a startling new finding that researchers say could mean sea levels are poised to rise more quickly than predicted in coming decades.

This study was supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment contract C05X1001 (R.H.L., T.R.N., N.R.G. and R.M.M.) and by National Science Foundation grant EAR-1151438 (S.R.M.).

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