Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Scientists Identify Tipping Points for Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier for First Time

Scientists Identify Tipping Points for Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier for First Time
A large, long-running crack is visible across the Pine Island Glacier on Oct. 14, 2011. NASA ICE / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier is currently losing more ice than any other glacier in Antarctica, but could it collapse entirely?

This has been a matter of debate and concern for scientists. Now, for the first time, researchers have identified the tipping points that would send the glacier into an irreversible retreat and published their findings in The Cryosphere on March 25. This retreat is a big deal because it could lead to the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsing and sea levels rising almost 10 feet.

"The possibility of Pine Island Glacier entering an unstable retreat has been raised before, but this is the first time that this possibility is rigorously established and quantified," Hilmar Gudmundsson, study author and University of Northumbria professor of glaciology and extreme environments, said in a press release.


West Antarctica is feeling the impacts of the climate crisis more than East Antarctica. The West Antarctic Peninsula is warming five times faster than the global average, the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research found. In West Antarctica, the Pine Island Glacier and its neighbor, the Thwaites Glacier, are two of the glaciers most impacted by warming temperatures, and there is evidence that the ice shelf supporting them is beginning to crack.

Even now, the two glaciers are responsible for around 10 percent of global sea level rise, the press release explained, which is why researchers are so concerned about their eventual collapse. However, while scientists have raised the possibility of collapse before, they have not been able to identify if or how it would happen.

Until now. The University of Northumbria team developed an ice-flow model that enables them to identify key tipping points for the glacier.

"Many different computer simulations around the world are attempting to quantify how a changing climate could affect the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, but identifying whether a period of retreat in these models is a tipping point is challenging," Dr. Sebastian Rosier, study lead author and a Vice-Chancellor's Research Fellow in Northumbria's Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, said in the press release. "However, it is a crucial question and the methodology we use in this new study makes it much easier to identify potential future tipping points."

Using their model, the researchers identified three potential tipping points for the Pine Island Glacier.

"The third and final event, triggered by an ocean warming of approximately 1.2 degrees C from the steady-state model configuration, leads to a retreat of the entire glacier that could initiate a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet," the study authors warned.

While Gudmundsson was pleased with the results on a scientific level, they also alarmed him on a human level.

"[T[he findings of this study also concern me. Should the glacier enter unstable irreversible retreat, the impact on sea level could be measured in meters, and as this study shows, once the retreat starts it might be impossible to halt it," he said.

Air France airplanes parked at the Charles de Gaulle/Roissy airport on March 24, 2020. SAMSON / AFP via Getty Images

France moved one step closer this weekend to banning short-haul flights in an attempt to fight the climate crisis.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
A woman looks at a dead gray whale on the beach in the SF Bay area on May 23, 2019; a new spate of gray whales have been turning up dead near San Francisco. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Four gray whales have washed up dead near San Francisco within nine days, and at least one cause of death has been attributed to a ship strike.

Read More Show Less
A small tourist town has borne the brunt of a cyclone which swept across the West Australian coast. ABC News (Australia) / YouTube

Tropical Cyclone Seroja slammed into the Western Australian town of Kalbarri Sunday as a Category 3 storm before grinding a more-than 600-mile path across the country's Southwest.

Read More Show Less
A general view shows the remains of a dam along a river in Tapovan, India, on February 10, 2021, following a flash flood caused by a glacier break on February 7. Sajjad Hussain / AFP / Getty Images

By Rishika Pardikar

Search operations are still underway to find those declared missing following the Uttarakhand disaster on 7 February 2021.

Read More Show Less
Indigenous youth, organizers with the Dakota Access and Line 3 pipeline fights and climate activists march to the White House to protest against pipeline projects on April 1, 2021. Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

By Jessica Corbett

Indigenous leaders and climate campaigners on Friday blasted President Joe Biden's refusal to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline during a court-ordered environmental review, which critics framed as a betrayal of his campaign promises to improve tribal relations and transition the country to clean energy.

Read More Show Less