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Antarctica Lost Sea Ice 4x the Size of France in 3 Years

Climate
Sea ice off the coast of Antarctica's Collins glacier on King George Island. MATHILDE BELLENGER / AFP / Getty Images

A swath of Antarctica's sea ice larger than four times the size of France has melted since 2014, AFP reported Tuesday.


The rapid decline, revealed in a study of satellite data published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marks a stunning reversal for the South Pole: Between 1979 and 2014, its sea ice was actually expanding. Then, it lost 2.1 million square kilometers (approximately 810,815 square miles) in three years, falling from 12.8 million square kilometers (approximately 4.9 million square miles) to 10.7 million square kilometers (approximately 4.1 million square miles).

"It went from its 40-year high in 2014, all the way down in 2017 to its 40-year low," study author and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center climatologist Claire Parkinson told AFP.

That also means that Antarctica rapidly caught up with the fast-melting Arctic. In four years, it lost as much sea ice as the Arctic lost in 34, The Guardian reported.

Scientists are still uncertain if the melting trend will continue or reverse again, and whether the climate crisis is to blame.

Parkinson told New Scientist that there was a similar rapid melt period in the 1970s followed by an expansion of ice, and the ice did begin to increase again between 2017 and 2018 before dipping to a new low record low for this time of year.

Sea ice in the Antarctic responds to more than just global temperature, as British Antarctic Survey sea ice expert Kaitlin Naughten told The Guardian.

"Westerly winds which surround the continent mean that Antarctic sea ice doesn't respond directly to global warming averaged over the whole planet," Naughten explained. "Climate change is affecting the winds, but so is the ozone hole and short-term cycles like El Niño. The sea ice is also affected by meltwater running off from the Antarctic ice sheet. Until 2014, the total effect of all these factors was for Antarctic sea ice to expand. But in 2014, something flipped, and the sea ice has since declined dramatically. Now scientists are trying to figure out exactly why this happened."

But even if the melting isn't caused by climate change, it could make it worse. That's because the bright white of sea ice reflects 50 to 70 percent of sunlight back into space, Parkinson told CNN. Dark ocean water, on the other hand, absorbs 90 percent of that light.

"The rapid decline has caught us by surprise and changes the picture completely. Now sea ice is retreating in both hemispheres and that presents a challenge because it could mean further warming." Leeds University professor Andrew Shepherd told The Guardian.

Sea ice loss does not contribute directly to sea level rise, but it does displace the wildlife that depends on the ice.

"Sea ice also affects the polar ecosystem, including penguins and whales and seals, petrels and albatrosses, krill, and a whole range of additional animals and marine plant life," Parkinson told CNN.

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A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.