Melting of Antarctica is speeding up, worrying scientists

Experts fear the future may be grim if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated

From 1992 to 2011, Antarctica lost almost 84 billion tons of ice a year (76 billion metric tons).

"What we have seen as the climate has warmed is that more warm water is reaching the Antarctic ice sheet and that's what is melting the sea ice", he said.

They discovered that Antarctica is now losing ice about three times faster than it did until 2012, climbing to a rate of more than 241 billion tons (219 billion metric tons) per year. Prior to 2012 the continent was losing ice at a rate of around 76 billion tonnes per year. 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.

In total, that amounts to almost 3 trillion tonnes of ice lost, in just 25 years time.

A single millimeter of global sea level rise is equivalent to 360 billion tons of melted ice, or an imaginary big ice cube with sides about 4.35 miles long.

The 80 scientists who put together the report, published in Nature, compiled their results by measuring ice loss in 24 different ways that relied on satellites, computer simulations, and measurements taken on the ground.

However, he said that there is growing evidence that projections of Antarctica's influence on sea-level rise may have been underestimated. That's causing glaciers to flow more quickly into the sea. If the rate does not increase, that would imply that sea level would rise by an average of 10 inches by 2100.

"Whilst there's still considerable uncertainty about East Antarctica mass balance, it is increasingly clear that ice loss from West Antarctica has accelerated", said Kate Hendry, a researcher at the University of Bristol, commenting on the findings.

"If we aren't already alert to the dangers posed by climate change, this should be an enormous wake-up call", he added.

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Ice loss of 2.7 trillion tonnes since 1992 added about eight millimetres to sea level.

Per the team's calculations, a high emissions scenario - in which carbon emissions rise unabated and environmental protections in Antarctica are not implemented - global air temperature would rise almost 3.5°C above 1850 levels by 2070, with sea level rise averaging somewhere between 10-15 mm every year.

"We can not count on East Antarctica to be the quiet player, and we start to observe change there in some sectors that have potential and they're vulnerable, " said Velicogna.

Antarctica is not the only contributor to sea-level rise. Scientists can't see the future, but they do fear continuing and even worsening losses.

"I think we should be anxious".

Much of the melt-off is coming from the Pine Island and Thwaites Glaciers, victims of climate change.

"Around Brooklyn you get flooding once a year or so, but if you raise sea level by 15 centimetres then that's going to happen 20 times a year", said Andrew Shepherd, a professor of earth observation at the University of Leeds and the lead author of the study. Scientists can also detect markers of where ice sheets once covered Antarctica by looking at the seabed around the western part of the continent, which holds traces of where glaciers were pinned in the past, Shepherd explained. "But remember for the northern hemisphere, for North America, the fact that the location in West Antarctica is where the action is amplifies that rate of sea level rise by up to an about additional 25 percent in a city like Boston or NY".

Whether Antarctic mass loss keeps worsening depends on choices made today, argues DeConto, who co-authored a separate paper in this week's Nature outlining two different visions for Antarctica's future in the year 2070. "This has to be a concern for the governments we trust to protect our coastal cities and communities".

Shepherd says until 2010, the data had been tracking a lower scenario which estimated that Antarctica "wouldn't make much of a contribution to sea level rise at all" because of the effects of higher snowfall. "Put simply if we can not collectively tackle climate change, then it's unlikely we will maintain Antarctica as a place for peace, nature and science".

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