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Antarctic Melting Increased 6x in the Past 40 Years

Climate
An iceberg flows 180 miles north of East Antarctica. Cultura / Brett Phibbs / Getty Images

The results of what researchers say is the longest-running study of Antarctica's ice mass have been published, and they are dramatic. Yearly ice loss has increased by a factor of six in the past 40 years, contributing more than half an inch to global sea level rise, a University of California, Irvine (UCI) press release reported. The researchers also observed consistent ice loss from East Antarctica, which boasts the world's largest ice sheet and has traditionally been assumed to be more stable.

"The places undergoing changes in Antarctica are not limited to just a couple places," lead author and UCI chair of earth system science Eric Rignot told The Washington Post. "They seem to be more extensive than what we thought. That, to me, seems to be reason for concern."


Scientists have estimated that sea levels could rise by three feet by 2100 if nothing is done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change, but faster melting from Antarctica could further accelerate the pace of sea level rise.

The research, undertaken by scientists at UCI, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Netherlands' Utrecht University, was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To arrive at their conclusions, the glaciologists looked at 40 years of high-resolution aerial photographs and satellite images covering 18 Antarctic regions, according to the UCI press release.

They found that Antarctica lost 40 gigatons of ice a year from 1979 to 1990. This jumped to about 252 gigatons a year between 2009 and 2017. The pace of melting also accelerated. From 1979 to 2001, it averaged 48 gigatons a year every decade. From 2001 to 2017, that rate increased a full 280 percent to 134 gigatons per year per decade.

Net ice loss occurs when snowfall does not equal the outward flow of glaciers and ice shelves. When that happens, sea levels rise, The Washington Post explained. West Antarctica, which has enough ice to raise oceans 17.32 feet, is still the most unstable section. The entire region is now losing 159 billion tons of ice each year.

But East Antarctica, which could contribute almost 170 feet to sea level rise, is also losing ice. Its Dennan glacier, for example, has lost around 200 billion tons worth. Other vulnerable glaciers include Dibble, Frost, Holmes and the Cook and Ninnis glaciers, which frame the Wilkes Subglacial Basin.

"The Wilkes Land sector of East Antarctica has, overall, always been an important participant in the mass loss, even as far back as the 1980s, as our research has shown," Rignot said in the press release. "This region is probably more sensitive to climate [change] than has traditionally been assumed, and that's important to know, because it holds even more ice than West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula together."

For every 360 billion tons of ice lost, sea levels rise by around one millimeter, The Washington Post reported. Overall, Antarctica has the potential to contribute 187.66 feet to sea level rise.

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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

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Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

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"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


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