Melting Antarctic Glacier Unstoppable, Global Sea Level Could Rise by 4 Feet
A rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in irreversible decline, with nothing to stop the entire glacial basin from disappearing into the sea, according to researchers at University of California Irvine and NASA.
The new study presents multiple lines of evidence—incorporating 40 years of observations that six massive glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector “have passed the point of no return,” according to glaciologist Eric Rignot, a University of California Irvine Earth system science professor who is also with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The new study has been accepted for publication in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.
These glaciers already contribute significantly to sea level rise, releasing as much ice into the ocean each year as the entire Greenland Ice Sheet does. They contain enough ice to boost the global sea level by four feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected. Rignot said the findings will require that current predictions of sea level rise be revised upward.
“This sector will be a major contributor to sea level rise in the decades and centuries to come,” Rignot said. “A conservative estimate is that it could take several centuries for all of the ice to flow into the sea.”
Three Lines of Evidence
Three major lines of evidence point to the glaciers’ eventual demise: changes in their flow speeds, how much of each glacier floats on seawater, and the slope and depth below sea level of the terrain they’re flowing over. In a paper published last month, the research group showed that the speed at which the glaciers are moving has accelerated steadily for four decades, increasing the amount of ice draining from them by 77 percent from 1973 to 2013. This new study focuses on the other two lines of evidence.
The West Antarctic glaciers flow out from land over the ocean, with their front edges afloat. The point at which they lose contact with land is called the grounding line. Virtually all glacial melting occurs on the undersides of their floating sections—beyond the grounding line.
Just as a boat that’s run aground can float again if its cargo is unloaded, a glacier can float over an area where it used to be grounded if it becomes lighter, which it does by melting or by stretching out and thinning. The Antarctic glaciers studied by Rignot’s group have shrunk so much that they’re now floating above places where they used to sit solidly on land, which means the grounding lines are retreating inland.
They’re “buried under a thousand or more meters of ice, so it’s incredibly challenging for a human observer on the ice sheet surface to figure out exactly where the transition is,” Rignot said. “This analysis is best done via satellite techniques.”
The team used radar observations from the European Remote Sensing satellites (ERS-1 and ERS-2) between 1992 and 2011 to map the grounding lines’ inland creep. The satellites employ a method called radar interferometry that enables scientists to measure very precisely— within a quarter of an inch—how Earth’s surface is moving. Glaciers shift horizontally as they flow downstream, but their floating portions also rise and fall with changes in the tides. Rignot and his group mapped how far inland these vertical motions extend to locate the grounding lines.
The accelerating flow speeds and retreating grounding lines reinforce each other in a recurring loop. As glaciers move faster, they stretch out and thin, which decreases their weight and lifts them farther off the bedrock. As the grounding line retreats and more of the glacier becomes waterborne, there’s less resistance underneath, so the flow accelerates, and so on—with each action intensifying the next.
Slowing or stopping these changes requires “pinning points”—bumps or hills rising from the glacier bed that snag the ice from below. To locate them, researchers produced a more accurate map of bed elevation that combines ice velocity data from ERS-1 and ERS-2 and ice thickness data from NASA’s Operation IceBridge mission and other airborne campaigns. The results confirmed that just one pinning point remains upstream of the current grounding lines. Only Haynes Glacier has major bedrock obstructions upstream, but it drains a small sector and is retreating as rapidly as the other glaciers.
Bed topography is another key to the fate of the ice in this basin. All the glacier beds slope deeper below sea level as they extend inland. As they retreat, they cannot escape the ocean’s reach, and the relatively warm water melts them even more rapidly.
The accelerating flow rates, lack of pinning points and sloping bedrock all point to one conclusion, Rignot said:
“The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable. The fact that the retreat is happening simultaneously over a large sector suggests it was triggered by a common cause, such as an increase in the amount of ocean heat beneath the floating parts of the glaciers. At this point, the end appears to be inevitable.”
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When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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