‘Utterly Terrifying’: Study Affirms Feedback Loop Fears as Surging Antarctica Ice Loss Tripled in Last Five Years

“The most robust study of the ice mass balance of Antarctica to date,” scientists say, “now puts Antarctica in the frame as one of the largest contributors to sea-level rise.”

By Jessica Corbett, staff writer for Common Dreams. Published 6-14-2018

Most serious melting is occuring in West Antarctica, scientists say. East Antarctica has experienced far less melting because the bulk of its ice is above sea level. (Photo: Natalie Tapson/flckr/cc)

Scientists are expressing alarm over “utterly terrifying” new findings from NASA and the European Space Agency that Antarctica has lost about 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992, and in the past five years—as the atmospheric and ocean temperatures have continued to climb amid ongoing reliance on fossil fuels—ice losses have tripled.

This should be a wake-up call, said University of Leeds professor Andrew Shepherd, a lead author of the report. “These events and the sea-level rise they’ve triggered are an indicator of climate change and should be of concern for the governments we trust to protect our coastal cities and communities.

Published in the journal Nature, “This is the most robust study of the ice mass balance of Antarctica to date,” said NASA’s Erik Ivins, who co-led the research team. The report offers insight into the future of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which the authors note “is an important indicator of climate change and driver of sea-level rise.”

“The outlook for the future is looking different to what it was,” explained Shepherd. “There has been a sharp increase, with almost half the loss coming in the last five years alone.”

Up until 2012, “we could not detect any acceleration,” but after that, based on surveys by satellites, they saw a threefold increase in the rate of ice melt. “That’s a big jump, and it did catch us all by surprise,” Shepherd said. “A threefold increase now puts Antarctica in the frame as one of the largest contributors to sea-level rise. The last time we looked at the polar ice sheets, Greenland was the dominant contributor. That’s no longer the case.”

About a decade ago, as New Scientist noted, “the official view was that there would be no net ice loss from Antarctica over the next century.”

Even so, Dr. James Hansen, “the father of modern climate change awareness,” warned at the time, “The primary issue is whether global warming will reach a level such that ice sheets begin to disintegrate in a rapid, non-linear fashion on West Antarctica, Greenland or both.”

“Once well under way, such a collapse might be impossible to stop, because there are multiple positive feedbacks,” Hansen wrote for New Scientist in 2007. “In that event, a sea level rise of several meter at least would be expected.”

Fears of so-called feedback loops have long been a critical part of the scientific community’s warnings about what runaway climate change could mean.

According to the report out this week—which was conducted by 84 researchers across 44 institutions—and others that have preceded it, the most serious melting is occuring in West Antarctica. “When we look into the ocean we find that it’s too warm and the ice sheet can’t withstand the temperatures that are surrounding it in the sea,” which is causing glaciers to melt more rapidly into the oceans, Shepherd explained.

East Antarctica, meanwhile, has experienced far less melting because the bulk of its ice is above sea level, he added. That is “an important distinction, because it means it’s insulated from changes in the ocean’s temperature.”

“I think we should be worried. That doesn’t mean we should be desperate,” University of California Irvine’s Isabella Velicogna, one of 88 co-authors,” told the Associated Press. “Things are happening. They are happening faster than we expected.”

“This is extremely concerning news and confirms what we already know about the impacts of burning fossil fuels: our climate is at a dangerous tipping point that is putting the communities of low-lying islands and our coasts at great risk,” said Hoda Baraka, 350.org’s global communications director.

“This is why tens of thousands of people around the world will join the Rise for Climate mobilization on and around the 8th September—to drive climate action within our communities,” Bakara added, “and send a clear message to governments that the science is clear, we have the momentum, the technology for the energy transition is ready and we demand bold action now.”

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