#ClimateChange and disaster – Antarctica’s rate of ice loss triples in just 5 years

The news from scientists studying the frozen continent isn’t good. According to a study conducted by a consortium of 84 specialists, the loss of ice in Antarctica – already thought to be a problem of immense concern – is only getting worse. Their study, published in the journal, Nature, indicates that the rate of ice loss has tripled in the last five years.

The scientists who conducted the research drew on satellite data collected over two decades, covering a total of 24 space-based surveys. And the results appear to be indisputable – Antarctica is shrinking, and the detrimental effects on its wildlife and global sea levels could prove disastrous.

What we all should know

  • Antarctica is the world’s 5th largest continent, and covers an area of roughly 14 million square kilometres (this is about 11.5 times the size of South Africa).
  • The ice sheets covering the continent are, on average, 1.6 km in depth.
  • If these ice sheets were to melt completely, global sea levels would rise 60 metres, if not more.
  • In an incredible contradiction, the Antarctic contains about 70% of Earth’s fresh water, but at the same time is classified as a desert. This owes to its low levels of precipitation and the prevailing inhospitable conditions.
  • The loss of ice since 1992 has accumulated to an unfathomable 2.7 trillion tonnes, 40% of which has been lost in the last 5 years alone.
  • This means that in the twenty years preceding 2012, the rate of annual ice loss amounted to 76 billion tonnes per year. Since 2012, this rate has skyrocketed to 219 billion tonnes per year.
  • Whereas the East Antarctic (the majority portion of the ice sheets) seems, at least for now, to be relatively stable, the West Antarctic is bearing the brunt of global warming and is the area of the greatest concern.

  • The melting of ice shelves surrounding the continent – ice that extends from the land mass and floats on the Antarctic’s seas (or, collectively, the Antarctic Ocean) – is less troubling than glacier movement from the interior toward the seas. These enormous glaciers act as plugs (or stops) that keep ice sheets at bay. As these are lost, the ice sheets behind them become less stable and could themselves flow into the Ocean.
  • If the current patterns continue, Antarctica could soon become the leading contributor to sea level increases, ahead of run-off from the Greenland ice sheet and mountain glaciers, and the natural expansion of water as the oceans warm.
  • Since 1993, the global sea level has risen just under 8.5cm, and by 2100, sea levels may rise by over a metre when compared to a pre-industrial point of reference.
  • This may not seem that much, but it will put coastal cities at extreme risk during severe storms and winds – never mind natural disasters like tsunamis.
  • Of course, the effects on life in the region are already taking a possibly irreversible toll: colonies of Emperor Penguins, to give but one example, have lost vital breeding grounds and dietary fish.

It would seem that if the research has produced a single finding that surpasses the rest, it would perhaps be, in the words of the study’s co-leading author, simply this:

We now have an unequivocal picture of what’s happening in Antarctica… We view these results as another ringing alarm for action to slow the warming of our planet.

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