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Climate: West Antarctic Ice Sheet is in trouble

Meltdown is inevitable …

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New findings require upward revision of sea level rise estimates. bberwyn photo.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Scientists say it’s only a matter of time before a huge chunk of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts into the ocean, potentially raising sea level around the world by several feet.

“The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable,” said glaciologist Eric Rignot, a UC Irvine Earth system science professor who is also with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “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.”

After studying data from 40 years of observations, Rignot said six massive glaciers in the Amundsen Sea sector “have passed the point of no return.” The findings will require that current predictions of sea level rise be revised upward, he added.

“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 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.

The scientists used radar observations to glean more information about what’s going on beneath the glaciers, finding that there’s not much that pinning the ice to solid ground.

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.

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