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Earth Lost Over 30 Trillion Tons of Ice in Under 30 Years, Scientists 'Stunned' by Landmark Study

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Earth Lost Over 30 Trillion Tons of Ice in Under 30 Years, Scientists 'Stunned' by Landmark Study
Sea ice breaking up in Greenland. steve_is_on_holiday / E+ / Getty Images

The Earth has lost 28 trillion tonnes (approximately 31 trillion U.S. tons) of ice in just 23 years, and the climate crisis is largely to blame.


The finding comes in a review paper published in The Cryosphere this month that used satellite data and numerical modelling to calculate all the ice that melted worldwide between 1994 and 2017.

"In the past researchers have studied individual areas – such as the Antarctic or Greenland – where ice is melting. But this is the first time anyone has looked at all the ice that is disappearing from the entire planet," study coauthor and director of Leeds University's Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling Andy Shepherd told The Guardian. "What we have found has stunned us."

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Arctic sea ice, Antarctic ice shelves, mountain glaciers, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and Southern Ocean sea ice all lost mass during the study period, the researchers wrote. About 68 percent of those losses were caused by warmer air temperatures, while the remaining 32 percent were caused by warmer ocean water.

"There can be little doubt that the vast majority of Earth's ice loss is a direct consequence of climate warming," the researchers wrote, as The Guardian reported.

In fact, the total ice loss recorded matches the worst-case scenario predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And it's likely to get worse. The researchers prognosticate a meter (approximately three feet) of sea level rise by 2100.

"To put that in context, every centimetre of sea level rise means about a million people will be displaced from their low-lying homelands," Shepherd told The Guardian.

But sea level rise isn't the only consequence of ice melt. For one thing, the melting ice exposes darker ocean waters or soil, which absorb the sun's heat rather than reflect it, increasing global heating. The fresh water melting from ice sheets also disrupts Arctic and Antarctic ocean ecosystems, while the loss of mountain glaciers threatens the drinking water of several communities.

"What more can be said? What further evidence are we waiting for?" UK Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas tweeted in response to the news. "Feel so overwhelmingly sad - and so angry too. We can't say we didn't know. Are we really saying we just didn't care?"

This has been a bad summer for ice news. Another study published this month found that Greenland's ice sheet had reached the "point of no return" and would continue to melt even if the climate crisis were halted. A third study found that Greenland lost a record amount of ice in 2019.

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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