Global warming could lead to runaway ice cap meltdown

New study shows very fast response between global temperature and ice volume and sea level

“when significant ice-volume adjustments happen, they are rarely slow.”

By Summit Voice

FRISCO β€” A new study confirms the strong links between global temperatures, melting ice and sea level and suggests that sea level responds more quickly that previously believed, probably because of the feedback warming effect of open water.

Ice volume changes during ancient times can be reconstructed from sea-level records, but detailed assessments of the role of ice volume in climate change is hindered by inadequacies in sea-level records and/or their timescales.

Now, a research team led by Eelco Rohling, Professor of Ocean and Climate Change at the University of Southampton, has developed a new way to date sea level rise and accurately link it with changes in ice volume. The scientists were able to apply the new dating method throughout the entire last glacial cycle (150,000 years), which resulted in an unprecedented continuous sea-level record with excellent independent age control.

By comparing the ice-volume fluctuations with polar temperature reconstructions from the Greenland and Antarctica ice cores, the scientists found that changes in temperature and ice volume/sea level are closely coupled with a response time lag of only a few centuries. This timing relationship was previously unknown, and it reveals a very fast response between global temperature and ice volume and sea level.

“This is the first time that these rates could be measured for any other period than the end-of-ice age ‘terminations/deglaciations,’ Rohling said. “Although it is always hard to step from paleo-reconstructions to future projections, it suggests that, when significant ice-volume adjustments happen, they are rarely slow.

“Ice sheet responses to a change in climate forcing are like the responses of heavy freight trains to firing up the locomotive,” Rohling continued. “They are hard to set in motion (slow to ‘spin up’), but once they are reacting, they will be equally slow to ‘spin down’. So a lag of a few centuries is worrisome, because we have been warming up the climate for 150-160 years now.

“If the natural relationship (when changes in climate were slower than today) also holds for the very fast changes in climate today, then we are coming into that window of time where we may expect to start seeing some unprecedented responses in the large ice sheets. This then may tie in with observations of the past decade or so of large ice-shelf collapses around Antarctica and Greenland, the major melt-area expansion over Greenland, changes in the flow speed of major ice streams (both Antarctica and Greenland), and increasing ice-mass loss over West Antarctica/the Antarctic Peninsula and Greenland.”

The study also found that periods of extensive ice-volume reduction/sea-level rise were always characterized by very fast changes, of the order of one or even two meters per century sea-level rise.

“We cannot say whether this proves the case, but at least the time delay of the modern ice-sheet responses relative to climate change would seem to agree with the response timescales we have now found in the palaeo-record,” Rohling said.

Co-author Christopher Bronk Ramsey, from Oxford University, who helped with radiocarbon dating on the project and developed some of the age-modelling techniques used, adds: “What is new here is that our dating of the marine sediment is much more direct. This gives us far more accurate age profiles for the sedimentary sequences, which in turn provides valuable insight into the way the earth system has worked in the past.”

The study, which is published in the latest issue of Nature, also hints that temperatures over Greenland changed virtually simultaneously with ice volume, whereas temperatures over Antarctica were leading ice-volume change by up to 700 years.

“Ice volume is related to ice area, and ice is very reflective. So a large ice volume/area reflects a lot of incoming solar radiation. When the ice volume/area reduces, less incoming radiation is reflected, which leads to regional warming. Atmospheric temperature has little inertia, so it will respond very quickly to ice-volume changes,” Rohling said.

“Our observations suggest that the Greenland temperature changes may largely be regional responses to changes in ice volume (at that time over North America and also Eurasia). In contrast, the Antarctic relationship suggests that temperature changes as recorded in Antarctic ice cores may have been driving the ice-volume changes.

“Possibly, the Antarctic temperature changes reflect the fundamental underlying global temperature changes that drove the ice-volume changes, while the Greenland temperature record primarily represents a regional temperature response to the changing ice volumes. These are intriguing hints at fundamental aspects of the Earth System’s response to climate change, which merit further investigation.”


4 thoughts on “Global warming could lead to runaway ice cap meltdown

  1. Hard to explain, in this context, why the Antarctic ice extent is increasing over the satellite record, and the Antarctic ice mass balance is positive, for the continent as a whole, not just the peninsula.

  2. Les Johnson – I am under the impression that the artarctic sea ice extent is increasing but the ice volume is not or perhaps increasing at a very low rate.

    My understanding is the sea ice extent is increasing but the land ice is steady or increasing very slightly. The former the consequence of the coastal shelf ice breaking up at an increased rate due to warming. The latter the consequence of increased moisure arising from warming which leads to increased snowfall over the land. I am a bit uncertain if I understand this correctly. Any comments.

    Ed Coleman

  3. Land mass ice is loosing every year with an acceleration taking place over time.

    Satellites measure Antarctica is gaining sea ice but losing land ice at an accelerating rate which has implications for sea level rise.

    Estimates of recent changes in Antarctic land ice (Figure 2) range from losing 100 Gt/year to over 300 Gt/year. Because 360 Gt/year represents an annual sea level rise of 1 mm/year, recent estimates indicate a contribution of between 0.27 mm/year and 0.83 mm/year coming from Antarctica. There is of course uncertainty in the estimations methods but multiple different types of measurement techniques (explained here) all show the same thing, Antarctica is losing land ice as a whole, and these losses are accelerating quickly.

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