Antarctica's ice sheet is melting at a rapidly increasing rate, now pouring more than 200 billion tons of ice into the ocean annually and raising sea levels a half-millimeter every year, a team of 80 scientists reported Wednesday.
Scientists have completed the most exhaustive assessment of changes in Antarctica's ice sheet to date.
An global team of researchers led by Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds, UK, and Erik Ivins from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), conducted a study that led to a complete picture of how Antarctica's ice sheet is changing, revealing that prior to 2012 Antarctica was losing 76 billion tonnes of ice a year. In the 25 years between 1992 and 2017, the ice sheet lost around 3 trillion tons of ice, with 40 percent of that loss coming in the last five years alone. The main factor behind that gain appears to be fluctuations in snowfall, researchers said.
Most ice was being lost from West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, where warmer ocean water is melting floating ice shelves at the end of glaciers, allowing ice pent up on land to slide faster toward the sea, the study said.
Louisa Casson, from the environmental group Greenpeace UK, said: "Right now we have an opportunity to protect the Antarctic, the incredible home of penguins and whales that also affects our global climate".
Benjamin Smith, senior principal investigator at the University of Washington Applied Physics Laboratory, said climate scientists are getting a better handle on crucial questions relating to the impact of Antarctic melting, thanks to more advanced satellites.
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"If we aren't already alert to the dangers posed by climate change, this should be an enormous wake-up call", said Martin Siegert, of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, and one of the authors.
Satellites contributing to the project include CryoSat, Sentinel-1 and the U.S.
If not enough is done to curb greenhouse gas emissions, changes to the Antarctic environment will result in global sea levels rising by more than a metre (3.3ft) by 2070.
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Antarctica's potential contribution to global sea level rise from its land-held ice is nearly 7.5 times greater than all other sources of land-held ice in the world combined.
While the western Antarctica ice sheet has been steadily melting, there has been evidence that East Antarctica itself was stable, or even growing.
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"But where there is loss of sea ice, storm-generated ocean swells can easily reach the exposed ice shelf, causing the first few kilometres of its outer margin to flex".
The world's oceans have thus risen 7.6 mm since 1992, and the whole process is now accelerating, according to the findings in a new issue of Nature.
This 2010 photo provided by researcher Ian Joughin shows crevasses near the edge of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica.
"The power of this research is that it brings together independent methods and results from a collection of different teams throughout the world", noted Twila Moon, a scientist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado.
In a new study, the most comprehensive to date of the continent's icy status, an global group of 84 researchers analyzed data from multiple satellite surveys, from 1992 to 2017. Coastal communities along the USA could feel the impact of a continued increase as melting ice adds to sea level rise, say experts. 'Things are happening. They are happening faster than we expected'.
The researchers also found that, although the total area of sea ice surrounding Antarctica has shown little overall change since the advent of satellite observations, mid-20th century ship-based observations suggest a longer-term decline.
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Although the general trend was of reduction, there was some increase in ice cover in East Antarctica.