Quantcast

Ice Sheets in Greenland, Antarctica Could Reach Catastrophic 'Tipping Points' if We Don't Limit Warming

Climate
Ilulissat, Greenland. Friederike Knauer / EyeEm / Getty Images

Scientists just gave us another terrifying reason to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels: If temperatures push much beyond that point, both Greenland and Antarctica's ice sheets could reach a point where nothing can stop them from melting.

An international team of researchers published this chilling finding in Nature Climate Change Monday. The researchers set out to study how the ice sheets would fare in a warming world, and the results were urgent.


"A big take-away is that the ice sheets, like many components of the climate system, likely have tipping points. Once they reach a certain amount of warming (~1.5 - 2.0°C), positive feedbacks kick in and commit us to long-term ice sheet mass loss and sea level rise," study author and Rowan University School of Earth and Environment Assistant Professor Luke Trusel explained on Twitter.

If these tipping points are tipped, it would be catastrophic for coastal communities and low-lying islands. The ice sheets combined contain enough water to raise sea levels by 65 meters (approximately 213 feet), according to a press release from the Netherlands Earth System Science Center (NESSC), one of the groups involved with the research.

To put that in perspective, this animation shows what the world would look like after just six meters (around 20 feet) of sea level rise.

Sea Level Rise Animation in Google Earth www.youtube.com

Of course, all of that sea level rise wouldn't happen at once. It would take several thousands of years for the Greenland ice sheet to disappear entirely and hundreds to thousands of years for the same thing to happen to the West Antarctic ice sheet.

But, as Trusel points out, it's frightening to think that our inaction today could set things in motion that would persist so long after we are gone.

"These ice sheet instability mechanisms mean we are committed to sea level rise for centuries and millennia based on what we do now and in the very near future," Trusel tweeted.

Besides, sea level rise is already causing problems for islands and coastal communities around the globe in the form of both more extreme storm surges and daily erosion and tidal flooding. Adding more would only increase the devastation.

Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 wouldn't stop sea level rise entirely, of course. Melting is already in motion and would likely continue at current rates until the end of the century, though researchers won't rule out the possibility that those rates could still increase. But stopping our global fossil fuel binge at the 1.5 degree mark could be the difference between manageable difficulties and catastrophe.

Lead author and Université Libre de Bruxelles professor Frank Pattyn laid it out at the beginning of a Twitter thread explaining his research.

"It is important to limit global warming by 2100 to 1.5°C to maximise the chance of avoiding so-called tipping points that would dramatically accelerate mass loss from Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets," Pattyn wrote.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

Ethics investigations have been opened into the conduct of senior Trump appointees at the nation's top environmental agencies.

The two investigations focus on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler and six high-ranking officials in the Department of Interior (DOI), The Hill reported Tuesday. Both of them involve the officials' former clients or employers.

"This is demonstrative of the failures at the very top of this administration to set an ethical tone," Campaign Legal Center Ethics Counsel Delaney Marsco told The Washington Post of the DOI investigation. "When people come to work for government, they're supposed to work on behalf of the public. It's a betrayal of the public trust when senior political appointees seem to give privileged access to their former employers or former clients."

Read More Show Less
Cigarette butt litter. Tavallai / CC BY-ND 2.0

By Dipika Kadaba

We've known for more than 50 years that smoking cigarettes comes with health hazards, but it turns out those discarded butts are harmful for the environment, too. Filtered cigarette butts, although small, contain dozens of chemicals, including arsenic and benzene. These toxins can leach into the ground or water, creating a potentially deadly situation for nearby birds, fish and other wildlife.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Thanasis Zovoilis / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Infants less than a year old should not be exposed to electronic screens, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

By Wenonah Hauter

Five years ago this week, an emergency manager appointed by then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made the devastating decision to save money by switching Flint's water supply over from Detroit's water system to the Flint River. Seen as a temporary fix, the new water supply was not properly treated. High levels of lead leached from the old pipes, poisoning a generation of Flint's children, and bacteria responsible for an outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease killed more than a dozen residents.

Read More Show Less
Los Angeles-Long Beach, California is listed as the nation's smoggiest city. Pixabay

Seven million more Americans lived in areas with unhealthy levels of air pollution between 2015 and 2017 than between 2014 and 2016, and climate change is partly to blame, Time reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Kissing bug. Pavel Kirillov / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that the kissing bug, which can transmit a potentially deadly parasite, has spread to Delaware, ABC News reported Wednesday.

Read More Show Less
"Take the pledge today." Screenshot / StopFoodWasteDay.com

Did you know that more than a third of food is wasted or thrown away every year? And that only 25 percent of it would be enough to feed the 795 million undernourished people in the world? That's why today is Stop Food Waste Day, a chance to reflect on what you can do to waste less of the food you buy.

Stop Food Waste Day is an initiative of food service company Compass Group. It was launched first in the U.S, in 2017 and went global the year after, making today it's second worldwide celebration.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE

Berries are among the healthiest foods you can eat.

Read More Show Less