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Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Melting Way Faster Than Expected, Scientists Warn

15 June 2018

The ice sheets of Antarctica are home to as much as 90 percent of the world's freshwater supply.

Antarctica has enough ice to raise seas by 190 feet if it ever all melted, dwarfing frozen stores in places from Greenland to the Himalayas and making its future the biggest uncertainty in understanding global warming and ocean levels.

A series of research papers in the journal Nature tells a story of ice loss and global concern.

Changes in global sea level, from 1992 to 2017, due to contributions from the Antarctic ice sheet.

"That the rate of ice loss is now three times faster than it was prior to 2012, when we last looked", Andrew Shepherd, a cryosphere scientist at the University of Leeds who led the motley crew of authors, told Earther. "The good news is that limited climate change can slow the rate of ice loss, and there are many proven actions that can reduce climate change and be implemented immediately".

Between 1992 and 2017, Antarctica shed 3 trillion tonnes of ice. At a constant rate that would increase average sea level to almost 12 inches by the end of this century.

But 40 per cent of that increase came from the last five years of the study period, from 2012 to 2017, when the ice-loss rate accelerated by 165 per cent.

If the volcanoes are active, they could erupt at any moment, melting vast amounts of ice and contributing to the already worrisome rising sea levels endangering large swathes of coastal populations around the globe. Greenland lost an estimated 1 trillion tonnes of ice between 2011 and 2014. The melting ice and warming waters have all been primarily driven by human emissions of greenhouse gases. However, growth of East Antarctica, which usually gains mass due to snowfall, was not enough to offset losses from West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, according to the Times.

Their analysis found "extremely low" concentrations of beryllium and aluminum isotopes in quartz sand in the marine sediment samples taken in the region, which leads to the conclusion that the ice sheet has been stable for millions of years.

An accelerating thaw of Antarctica has pushed up world sea levels by nearly a centimeter since the early 1990s in a risk for coasts from Pacific islands to Florida, an global team of scientists said on Thursday.

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Antarctica is melting faster than anyone thought, scientists said in an alarming new study published Wednesday, and the subsequent rise in sea levels could wreak havoc on coastal communities over the next several decades.

The changes will not be steady, in any case, said Knut Christianson, an Antarctic researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, by email.

"To see a threefold increase just since 2012 - that's disturbing to me", said Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "And we find that by combining all of the available measurements we can iron out the problems that individual techniques have".

Large parts of the massive East Antarctic Ice Sheet did not retreat significantly during a time when atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were similar to today's levels, according to a team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

As shown in the video above, these changes are not uniform over the entire Antarctic ice sheet.

"Now when we look again, we can see actually that the signal is very different to what we've seen before", Shepherd said.

However, he said that there is growing evidence that projections of Antarctica's influence on sea-level rise may have been underestimated.

Advancements in Earth-observing satellites have enabled researchers to better understand the polar regions. Budgets proposed by the Trump administration have called for a reduction in some Earth-observation programs.

"Unfortunately, we appear to be on a pathway to substantial ice-sheet loss in the decades ahead, with longer-term consequences for enhanced sea-level rise; something that has been predicted in models for some time".

"They're melting the ice at rates that far exceed anything that would change in the air, and these are forces that you can't reverse easily".

Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Melting Way Faster Than Expected, Scientists Warn