Antarctic glacier on brink of melting causing catastrophic rise in sea levels

Eloise Marshall
July 11, 2019

In the last six years alone, at least five Antarctic glaciers have double the rates at which they are melting.

A new study has found that instability in the Antarctic ice could speed up the flow of melted ice into the ocean and cause sea level to rise faster than previously expected.

Robel and his research partners at Georgia Tech, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Washington built an instability model of Thwaites Glacier and ran hundreds of simulations.

But Antarctica carries huge amounts of ice on land - often in the form of glaciers - which can introduce freshwater into the sea.

Based on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, sea levels proceed to rise at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year.

If the Thwaites Glacier was to become truly unstable, it would be devastating. "It will keep going by itself, and that's the worry", Robel said "Climate variations will still be important after that tipping point because they will determine how fast the ice will move".

Thwaites and the nearby Pine Island Glacier are two of the biggest and fastest-retreating glaciers in Antarctica.

"After reaching the tipping point, Thwaites Glacier could lose all of its ice in 150 years", said Helene Seroussi, NASA scientist and study author. That ice loss is a part of a broader trend: The complete Antarctic ice sheet is melting nearly 6 times as fast as it did 40 years in the past. This instability is unlikely to be found only in the Thwaites Glacier.

Alex Robel, another study author, added that if the glacier were to cross that Rubicon, nothing could stop the ice melt - even if Earth's temperatures stopped rising.

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Current sea levels are almost eight inches (20cm) above pre-global warming levels and are blamed for increased coastal flooding across the world. It could quickly force the melting flow into the ocean and cause the sea level to rise. Sea level rise linked to warming has already been linked with increased coastal flooding and storm surges.

The doomsday prediction came after 500 ice-flow models of the glacier all predicted the instability would be triggered if the rate of ice melt due to warming oceans stayed at today's levels.

"Ice flows out into the floating ice shelf and melts or breaks off as icebergs".

So scientists like Seroussi and Robel track Thwaites' grounding line: the spot where the continental ice lifts off the ground and starts to float on the water.

Mr Seroussi added: "The process becomes self-perpetuating".

The conclusion was that the glacier is racing towards an irreversible melting point.

Most of that water is frozen in masses of ice and snow that can be up to 10,000 feet (3 kilometres) thick.

Without it, surrounding glaciers could all disintegrate, raising sea levels by 2.5 metres if all ice were lost. And rising sea levels are obviously a huge problem.

Unlike the melting of ice sheets on land, sea ice melting does not raise sea levels but the loss of the reflective white ice leads to more of the sun's heat being absorbed in the ocean, increasing the pace of heating.

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