NASA: West Antarctic Ice Sheet ‘unstoppable’

For decades, scientists have been watching and assessing the potential for large chunks of the massive West Antarctic Ice Sheet to slide into the sea.

This week two new studies suggest the ice is moving more quickly than previously thought, that the advance of the glaciers is accelerating and has become “unstoppable.” The new studies may ultimately cause a dramatic upward revision in forecasts for sea level rise in the coming centuries.

“It has passed the point of no return,” says Eric Rignot, who is lead author on one of the studies. Rignot is a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of California, Irvine.

Thwaites Glacier in the West Antarctic Ice Shelf. NASA

Here’s a clip from NASA’s press release on Rignot’s study  this week.

A new study by researchers at NASA and the University of California, Irvine, finds a rapidly melting section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet appears to be in an irreversible state of decline, with nothing to stop the glaciers in this area from melting into the sea.

The study presents multiple lines of evidence, incorporating 40 years of observations that indicate the glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica “have passed the point of no return,” according to glaciologist and lead author Eric Rignot, of UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The new study has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

These glaciers already contribute significantly to sea level rise, releasing almost as much ice into the ocean annually as the entire Greenland Ice Sheet. They contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 4 feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected. Rignot said these findings will require an upward revision to current predictions of sea level rise.

“This sector will be a major contributor to sea level rise in the decades and centuries to come,” Rignot said. “A conservative estimate is it could take several centuries for all of the ice to flow into the sea.”

Three major lines of evidence point to the glaciers’ eventual demise: the changes in their flow speeds, how much of each glacier floats on seawater, and the slope of the terrain they are flowing over and its depth below sea level. In a paper in April, Rignot’s research group discussed the steadily increasing flow speeds of these glaciers over the past 40 years. This new study examines the other two lines of evidence.

The glaciers flow out from land to the ocean, with their leading edges afloat on the seawater. The point on a glacier where it first loses contact with land is called the grounding line. Nearly all glacier melt occurs on the underside of the glacier beyond the grounding line, on the section floating on seawater.

Just as a grounded boat can float again on shallow water if it is made lighter, a glacier can float over an area where it used to be grounded if it becomes lighter, which it does by melting or by the thinning effects of the glacier stretching out. The Antarctic glaciers studied by Rignot’s group have thinned so much they are now floating above places where they used to sit solidly on land, which means their grounding lines are retreating inland.

“The grounding line is buried under a thousand or more meters of ice, so it is 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 using satellite techniques.”

NASA

What does West Antarctic ice sheet loss mean for sea level rise?

Just how quickly, or slowly, does an accelerated “slippage” of ice off land into the ocean impact sea levels? That’s a hard, but critically important question to answer, according to NASA and Rignot.

Here’s another clip from NASA’s Primer on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Even as Rignot and colleagues suggest that loss of the Amundsen Sea embayment glaciers appears inevitable, it remains extremely difficult to predict exactly how this ice loss will unfold and how long it will take. A conservative estimate is that it could take several centuries.

The region contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 4 feet (1.2 meters). The most recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report estimates that by 2100, sea level will rise somewhere from just less than 1 foot to about 3 feet (26 to 98 centimeters). But the vast majority of these projections do not take into account the possibility of major ice loss in Antarctica. Rignot said this new study suggests sea level rise projections for this century should lean toward the high-end of the IPCC range.

The Amundsen Sea region is only a fraction of the whole West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which if melted completely would raise global sea level by about 16 feet (5 meters).

If the ice sheet in the West Antarctic moves as much, or more, than the new studies seem to indicate, we could be looking at several additional feet of sea level rise in the coming centuries. This could have dramatic implications for the world’s major coastal cities.