Trillions of tons of melting ice in Antarctica raising sea levels

Andrew Shepherd shows an unusual iceberg near the Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. In a study released Wednesday

The loss of ice was especially significant in West Antarctica, where the melting ice tripled over the last 25 years, from 53 billion tonnes in 1992 to 159 billion tonnes per year in 2017.

- In the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, sea ice expands and contracts as ocean water freezes and melts throughout the year.

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.

Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and Erik Ivins from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) led a group of 84 scientists from 44 worldwide organizations in the research that gives us the most complete picture to date of the changes going on with the Antarctic ice sheet.

According to research published today in the journal Nature, the Antarctic's ice sheets have been melting at a rate three times higher than ever before, pouring 200 billion tons of water into the world's oceans and raising the sea level by a half-millimeter every year. "Greenhouse gas emissions must start decreasing in the coming decade to have a realistic prospect of following the low emissions narrative and so avoid global impacts associated with change in Antarctica, such as substantial sea level rise".

Each of these plays an important environmental role: the ice sheet holds enormous freshwater reserves, the ice shelves feed freshwater into the ocean, and the sea ice is more reflective of sunlight than the water it floats in, which reduces the amount of heat the planet absorbs. It contains more than 90% of the world's ice - enough to potentially raise global mean sea level by about 57 metres. However since then there has been a sharp increase, resulting in the loss of 219bn tonnes of ice per year - a 0.6mm per year sea-level contribution.

Co-author Professor Martin Siegert, from the Grantham Institute, said: "Some of the changes Antarctica will face are already irreversible, such as the loss of some ice shelves, but there is a lot we can prevent or reverse". Each of these satellites provide an independent way to measure Antarctica's past contribution to sea level rise.

Much of the East Antarctic ice sheet is land-based.

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Altogether, 34,000 square kilometres (km2) of ice shelf area has been lost since the 1950s, they said.

The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute 15cm to sea-level rise by 2100 - the upper end of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated Antarctica alone could contribute to sea-level rise this century. Antarctica is now responsible for roughly 30 per cent of global sea rise rather than the 10 per cent once believed.

A new climate assessment called the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) found a startling rise in sea level. The combined effects of climate variability, atmosphere, and ocean circulation, and even ice shelf melting have driven regional changes, including reductions in sea ice in the Amundsen and Bellingshausen seas.

The study used 20 years of data from 24 independent satellite measurements, along with studies from more than 80 co-authors, and was prepared in collaboration with NASA and ESA.

The growth is largely attributable to just two huge glaciers - Pine Island and Thwaites.

"Satellites have given us an wonderful, continent-wide picture of how Antarctica is changing", said study co-author Dr. Pippa Whitehouse.

If no one does anything to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and the planet continues to warm then a scenario would come when a quarter of the volume of the sea ice would probably disappear by 2070, fishes and penguins will die and the USA could see $1 trillion in damage.

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