Scientists still don’t know how far melting in Antarctica will go – or the sea level rise it will unleash


Chen Zhao, University of Tasmania and Rupert Gladstone, University of LaplandThe Antarctic ice sheet is the largest mass of ice in the world, holding around 60% of the world’s fresh water. If it all melted, global average sea levels would rise by 58 metres. But scientists are grappling with exactly how global warming will affect this great ice sheet.

This knowledge gap was reflected in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It contains projections from models in which important processes affecting the ice sheets, known as feedbacks and tipping points, are absent because scientific understanding is lacking.

Projected sea level rise will have widespread effects in Australia and around the world. But current projections of ice sheet melt are so wide that developing ways for societies to adapt will be incredibly expensive and difficult.

If the world is to effectively adapt to sea level rise with minimal cost, we must quickly address the uncertainty surrounding Antarctica’s melting ice sheet. This requires significant investment in scientific capacity.

Tourists photograph beachside homes damaged by storm
Australia is vulnerable to sea level rise and associated storm surge, such as this scene at a Sydney beach in 2016.
David Moir/AAP

The great unknown

Ice loss from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets was the largest contributor to sea level rise in recent decades. Even if all greenhouse gas emissions ceased today, the heat already in the ocean and atmosphere would cause substantial ice loss and a corresponding rise in sea levels. But exactly how much, and how fast, remains unclear.

Scientific understanding of ice sheet processes, and of the variability of the forces that affect ice sheets, is incredibly limited. This is largely because much of the ice sheets are in very remote and harsh environments, and so difficult to access.

This lack of information is one of the main sources of uncertainty in the models used to estimate ice mass loss.

At the moment, quantifying how much the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will contribute to sea level rise primarily involves an international scientific collaboration known as the “Ice Sheet Model Intercomparison Project for CMIP6”, or ISMIP6, of which we are part.

The project includes experts in ice sheet and climate modelling and observations. It produces computer simulations of what might happen if the polar regions melt under different climate scenarios, to improve projections of sea level rise.

The project also investigates ice sheet–climate feedbacks. In other words, it looks at how processes in the oceans and atmosphere will affect the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, including whether the changes might cause them to collapse – leading to large and sudden increases in sea level.




Read more:
Anatomy of a heatwave: how Antarctica recorded a 20.75°C day last month


a melting glacier
Ice loss from sheets in Antarctic and Greenland were the biggest contributor to sea-level rise in recent decades.
John McConnico/AP

Melting from below

Research has identified so-called “basal melt” as the most significant driver of Antarctic ice loss. Basal melt refers to the melting of ice shelves from underneath, and in the case of Antarctica, interactions with the ocean are thought to be the main cause. But gathering scientific observations beneath ice shelves is a major logistical challenge, leading to a dearth of data about this phenomenon.

This and other constraints mean the rate of progress in ice sheet modelling has been insufficient to date, and so active ice sheet models are not included in climate models.

Scientists must instead make projections using the ice sheet models in isolation. This hinders scientific attempts to accurately simulate the feedback between ice and climate.

For example, it creates much uncertainty in how the interaction between the ocean and the ice shelf will affect ice mass loss, and how the very cold, fresh meltwater will make its way back to global oceans and cause sea level rise, and potentially disrupt currents.

Despite the uncertainties ISMIP6 is dealing with, it has published a series of recent research including a key paper published in Nature in May. This found if the world met the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5℃ this century, land ice melt would cause global sea level rise of about 13cm by 2100, in the most optimistic scenario. This is compared to a rise of 25cm under the world’s current emissions-reduction pledges.

The study also outlines a pessimistic, but still plausible, basal melt scenario for Antarctica in which sea levels could be five times higher than in the main scenarios.

The breadth of such findings underpinned sea level projections in the latest IPCC report. The Antarctic ice sheet once again represented the greatest source of uncertainty in these projections.

The below graph shows the IPCC’s latest sea level projections. The shaded area reflects the large uncertainties in models using the same basic data sets and approaches. The dotted line reflects deep uncertainty about tipping points and thresholds in ice sheet stability.

IPCC reports are intended to guide global policy-makers in coming years and decades. But the uncertainties about ice melt from Antarctica limit the usefulness of projections by the IPCC and others.




Read more:
This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know


The IPCC’s projections for global average sea level change in metres, relative to 1900.
IPCC

Dealing with uncertainty

Future sea level rise poses big challenges such as human displacement, infrastructure loss, interference with agriculture, a potential influx of climate refugees, and coastal habitat degradation.

It’s crucial that ice sheet models are improved, tested robustly against real-world observations, then integrated into the next generation of international climate models – including those being developed in Australia.

International collaborations such as NECKLACE and RISE are seeking to coordinate international effort between models and observations. Significant investment across these projects is needed.

Sea levels will continue rising in the coming decades and centuries. Ice sheet projections must be narrowed down to ensure current and future generations can adapt safely and efficiently.


The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr Ben Galton-Fenzi, Dr Rupert Gladstone, Dr Thomas Zwinger and David Reilly to the research from which this article draws.The Conversation

Chen Zhao, Research associate, University of Tasmania and Rupert Gladstone, Adjunct professor, University of Lapland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Rising seas and melting glaciers: these changes are now irreversible, but we have to act to slow them down


Shutterstock/slowmotiongli

Nick Golledge, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

After three years of writing and two weeks of virtual negotiations to approve the final wording, the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms that changes are happening in Earth’s climate across every continent and every ocean.

My contribution was as one of 15 lead authors to a chapter about the oceans, the world’s icescapes and sea level change — and this is where we are now observing changes that have become irreversible over centuries, and even millennia.


Read more: This is the most sobering report card yet on climate change and Earth’s future. Here’s what you need to know


Overall, the world is now 1.09℃ warmer than it was during the period between 1850 and 1900. The assessment shows the ocean surface has warmed slightly less, by about 0.9℃ as a global average, than the land surface since 1850, but about two-thirds of the ocean warming has taken place during the last 50 years.

Underwater canyon in the Pacific ocean.
The world’s oceans are warming and acidifying. Shutterstock/Damsea

We concluded that it is virtually certain the heat content of the ocean will continue to increase for the rest of the current century, and will likely continue until at least 2300, even under low-emissions scenarios.

We also concluded that carbon dioxide emissions are the main driver of acidification in the open ocean and that this has been increasing faster than any time in at least 26,000 years.

We can also say with high confidence that oxygen levels have dropped in many ocean regions since the mid-20th century and that marine heatwaves have doubled in frequency since 1980, also becoming longer and more intense.

Past greenhouse gas emissions, since 1750, mean we are now committed to future ocean warming throughout this century. The rate of change depends on our future emissions, but the process itself is now irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales.

Glacier calving on the Antarctic Peninsula.
A warming ocean is melting ice from below in West Antarctica. Shutterstock/Steve Allen

Ice loss in Antarctica

All this heat is bad news for the area I work in: Antarctica. With a warming ocean, the Antarctic ice sheet is left vulnerable to melting because so much of it rests on bedrock below sea level.

As the ocean warms and the ice sheet melts, sea level goes up around the world. We have very high confidence that the ice lost from West Antarctica in recent decades has exceeded any gain in mass from snowfall. We are also confident this loss has largely been due to increased melting of ice below sea level, driven by warming ocean water.

 

 

 

This melting has allowed the acceleration and thinning of grounded ice further inland — and this is what contributes to sea level rise. On the other side of the world, the Greenland ice sheet has also been losing mass over recent decades, but in Greenland this is principally due to warmer air, rather than warming ocean water.


Read more: If warming exceeds 2°C, Antarctica’s melting ice sheets could raise seas 20 metres in coming centuries


It is virtually certain that the melting of the two great ice sheets, in Greenland and Antarctica, as well as the many thousands of glaciers around the world, will continue to raise sea levels globally for the rest of the current century.

By 2100, we project global mean sea level to be between 0.4m (for the lowest emission scenario, in which CO₂ emissions would have to drop to net zero by 2050) and 0.8m (for the highest emissions scenario) above the 1995–2014 average. How high the seas rise this century clearly depends on how much and how quickly we manage to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The time to act is now

There are processes at play which we still cannot fully capture in computer models, mostly because they take place over periods of time longer than we have direct (satellite-based) observations for. In Antarctica, some of these uncertain processes could greatly accelerate the loss of ice, and potentially add one metre to the projected sea level by 2100.

Whether or not this worst-case scenario plays out or not remains uncertain, but what is increasingly beyond doubt is that global mean sea level will continue to rise for centuries to come. The magnitude of this depends very much on the extent to which we are able, collectively, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions right now.

Ocean ways against a coastal city.
Globally, the seas will continue to rise for centuries to come. Shutterstock/JivkoM

The scientific updates in our AR6 chapter are in line with those from previous assessments. That’s encouraging, because every assessment report brings in new authors with different expertise. The fact the scientific conclusions remain consistent reflects the overwhelming agreement within the global scientific community.

For our chapter, we have assessed 1500 research papers, but across the entire AR6, over 14,000 publications were considered, with an emphasis on recent research that hasn’t been assessed in previous IPCC reports.

The report has been scrutinised carefully at every stage of its evolution, attracting nearly 80,000 individual review comments from experts all over the world. Every single comment had to be addressed by the author team, with written responses provided and any changes to the text carefully noted and tracked.

What changes with each assessment is the clarity of the trends we are observing, and the increasing urgency with which we must act. While some aspects of AR6 are new, the underlying message remains the same. The longer we wait, the more devastating the consequences.

Click here to read more of The Conversation’s coverage of the IPCC reportThe Conversation

Nick Golledge, Professor of Glaciology, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: when Antarctica melts, will gravity changes lift up land and lower sea levels?


Shutterstock/Nickolya

Robert McLachlan, Massey University


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


I’ve heard the gravity changes when Antarctica melts will lower the seas around New Zealand. Will that save us from sea level rise?

The gravitational changes when Antarctica melts do indeed affect sea levels all over the world — but not enough to save New Zealand from rising seas.

The ice ages and their effects on sea level, geology, flora and fauna were topics of intense scientific and public interest all through the 19th century. Here’s how James Croll explained the “gravity effect” of melting ice in his 1875 book Climate and Time in their Geologic Relations:

Let us now consider the effect that this condition of things would have upon the level of the sea. It would evidently tend to produce an elevation of the sea-level on the northern hemisphere in two ways. First, the addition to the sea occasioned by the melting of the ice from off the Antarctic land would tend to raise the general level of the sea. Secondly, the removal of the ice would also tend to shift the earth’s centre of gravity to the north of its present position – and as the sea must shift along with the centre, a rise of the sea on the northern hemisphere would necessarily take place.

His back-of-the-envelope calculation suggested the effect on sea level from ice melting in Antarctica would be about a third bigger than average in the northern hemisphere and a third smaller in the south.

A more detailed mathematical study by Robert Woodward in 1888 has falling sea level as far as 2000km from Antarctica, but still rising by a third more than average in the north.




Read more:
Ancient Antarctic ice melt caused extreme sea level rise 129,000 years ago – and it could happen again


Sea-level fingerprints

Woodward’s method is the basis of determining what is now called the “sea-level fingerprint” of melting ice. Two other factors also come into play.

  1. The elasticity of the earth’s surface means the land will bounce up when it has less ice weighing it down. This pushes water away.
  2. If the ice is not at the pole, its melting shifts the south pole (the axis of rotation), redistributing water.

Combining these effects gives the sea-level fingerprints of one metre of sea-level rise from either the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and Greenland (GIS), as shown here:

Red areas get more than the average sea level rise, blue areas get less.
Fingerprints of sea-level change following melting of ice from West Antartica (WAIS) and Greenland (GIS) equivalent to one metre of sea-level rise on average. Red areas get up to 40% more than the average sea-level rise, blue areas get less.
Author provided, CC BY-SA

Woodward’s method from 1888 holds up pretty well – some locations in the northern hemisphere can get a third more than the average sea level rise. New Zealand gets a little bit below the average effect from Antarctica, and a little more than average from Greenland. Overall, New Zealand can expect slightly higher than average sea level rise.

Combining the sea-level fingerprints of all known sources of melting ice, together with other known changes of local land level such as subsidence and uplift, gives a good fit to the observed pattern of sea level rise around the world. For example, sea level has been falling near West Antarctica, due to the gravity effect.

Changes in sea level around the world, 1993-2019

NOAA

Sea-level rise is accelerating, but the future rate is uncertain

The global average rise in sea level is 110mm for 1900-1993 and 100mm for 1993–2020. The recent acceleration is mostly due to increased thermal expansion of the top two kilometres of the oceans (warm water is less dense and expands) and increased melting of Greenland.

But the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment satellite has revealed the melting of Antarctica has accelerated by a factor of five in recent decades. Future changes in Antarctica represent a major source of uncertainty when trying to forecast sea levels.

Much of West Antarctica lies below sea level and is potentially subject to an instability in which warming ocean water melts the ice front from below. This would cause the ice sheet to peel off the ocean floor, accelerating the flow of the glacier towards the sea.

In fact, this has been directly observed, both in the location of glacial “grounding lines”, some of which have retreated by tens of kilometres in recent decades, and most recently by the Icefin submersible robot which visited the grounding line of the Thwaites Glacier, 2000km east of Scott Base, and found the water temperature to be 2℃ above the local freezing point.




Read more:
If warming exceeds 2°C, Antarctica’s melting ice sheets could raise seas 20 metres in coming centuries


The big question is whether this instability has been irreversibly set into motion. Some glaciologists say it has, but the balance of opinion, summarised by the IPCC’s report on the cryosphere, is that:

Observed grounding line retreat … is not definitive proof that Marine Ice Sheet Instability is underway. Whether unstable West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreat has begun or is imminent remains a critical uncertainty.

The IPCC special report on 1.5℃ concluded that “these instabilities could be triggered at around 1.5℃ to 2℃ of global warming”.

What’s in store for New Zealand

Predictions for New Zealand range from a further 0.46 metres of sea-level rise by 2100 (under a low-emission scenario, with warming kept under 2℃) to 1.05 metres (under a high-emission scenario).

A continued rise in sea levels over future centuries may be inevitable — there are 66m of sea level rise locked up in ice at present — but the rate will depend on how fast we can reduce emissions.

A five-year, NZ$7m research project, NZ SeaRise, is now underway, seeking to improve predictions of sea-level rise out to 2100 and beyond and their implications for local planning.The Conversation

Robert McLachlan, Professor in Applied Mathematics, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Antarctica now has more than 65,000 ‘meltwater lakes’ as summer ice melts



Meltwater on the ice shelf near the McMurdo research station, Antarctica.
Nicholas Bayou / UNAVCO, Author provided

Jennifer Arthur, Durham University

During the Antarctic summer, thousands of mesmerising blue lakes form around the edges of the continent’s ice sheet, as warmer temperatures cause snow and ice to melt and collect into depressions on the surface. Colleagues of mine at Durham University have recently used satellites to record more than 65,000 of these lakes.

Though seasonal meltwater lakes have formed on the continent for decades, lakes had not been recorded before in such great numbers across coastal areas of East Antarctica. This means parts of the world’s largest ice sheet may be more vulnerable to a warming climate than previously thought.

Lakes affect ice shelves

Much of Antarctica is surrounded by floating platforms of ice, often as tall as a skyscraper. These are “ice shelves”. And when some of these ice shelves have collapsed in the past, satellites have recorded networks of lakes growing and then abruptly disappearing shortly beforehand. For instance, several hundred lakes disappeared in the weeks before the the catastrophic disintegration of the Larsen B Ice Shelf – when 3,250 km² of ice broke up in just two months in 2002.

Blue meltwater ponds cover the surface of Larsen B Ice Shelf in January 2002 (left) before its abrupt collapse two months later (right). Open ocean appears as black in both images.
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The collapse may have depended on water from these lakes filling crevasses and then acting like a wedge as the weight of the water expanded the crevasses, triggering a network of fractures. The weight of lakes can also cause the ice shelf surface to flex, leading to further fracturing, which is thought to have helped the shelf become unstable and collapse.

Ice shelves act as door stops, supporting the huge mass of ice further inland. Their removal means the glaciers feeding the ice shelf are no longer held back and flow faster into the ocean, contributing to sea-level rise.

Melting the ice sheet surface

Scientists already knew that lakes form on the Antarctic ice sheet. But the latest study, published in Scientific Reports, shows that many more lakes are forming than previously thought, including in new parts of the ice sheet and much further inland and at higher elevations.

Since the cold and remoteness makes it logistically challenging to measure and monitor Antarctica’s lakes in the field, we largely know all this thanks to satellite imagery. In this case, one of the satellites used was the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 which provides global coverage of the Earth’s surface every five days and can detect features as small as ten metres.

Meltwater lakes on Sørsdal Glacier, Antarctica (red dot on larger map).
Google Maps

My colleagues analysed satellite images of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet taken in January 2017. In total, the images covered 5,000,000 km² (that’s more than 20 times the area of the United Kingdom).

Because water reflects certain wavelengths very strongly compared to ice, lakes can be detected in these images by classifying pixels in the image as “water” or “non-water”. From these images we can pinpoint when lakes form, their growth and drainage, and how their extent and depth change over time. The largest lake detected so far was nearly 30 km long and estimated to hold enough water to fill 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Cause for concern?

In a warming world, scientists are particularly interested in these lakes because they may contribute to destabilising the ice shelves and ice sheet in future.

Like a sponge, the more that ice shelves become saturated with meltwater, the less they are able to absorb, meaning more water pools on their surfaces as lakes. More surface lakes mean a greater likelihood that water will drain out, fill crevasses and potentially trigger flexing and fracturing. If this were to occur, other ice shelves around Antarctica may start to disintegrate like Larsen B. Glaciers with floating ice tongues protruding into the ocean may also be vulnerable.

Meltwater drains away through a
Sanne Bosteels

Meanwhile in Greenland, scientists have observed entire lakes draining away within a matter of days, as meltwater plunges through vertical shafts in the ice sheet known as “moulins”. A warm, wet base lubricated by meltwater allows the ice to slide quicker and flow faster into the ocean.

Could something similar be happening in Antarctica? Lakes disappearing in satellite imagery suggests they could be draining in this way, but scientists have yet to observe this directly. If we are to understand how much ice the continent could lose, and how much it could contribute to global sea-level rise, we must understand how these surface meltwater lakes behave. Though captivating, they are potentially a warning sign of future instability in Antarctica.


Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.The Conversation

Jennifer Arthur, PhD student, Cryospheric Remote Sensing, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

If warming exceeds 2°C, Antarctica’s melting ice sheets could raise seas 20 metres in coming centuries



During the Pliocene, up to one third of Antarctica’s ice sheet melted, causing sea-level rise of 20 metres.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Georgia Rose Grant, GNS Science and Timothy Naish, Victoria University of Wellington

We know that our planet has experienced warmer periods in the past, during the Pliocene geological epoch around three million years ago.

Our research, published today, shows that up to one third of Antarctica’s ice sheet melted during this period, causing sea levels to rise by as much as 20 metres above present levels in coming centuries.

We were able to measure past changes in sea level by drilling cores at a site in New Zealand, known as the Whanganui Basin, which contains shallow marine sediments of arguably the highest resolution in the world.

Using a new method we developed to predict the water level from the size of sand particle moved by waves, we constructed a record of global sea-level change with significantly more precision than previously possible.

The Pliocene was the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were above 400 parts per million and Earth’s temperature was 2°C warmer than pre-industrial times. We show that warming of more than 2°C could set off widespread melting in Antarctica once again and our planet could be hurtling back to the future, towards a climate that existed three million years ago.




Read more:
Not convinced on the need for urgent climate action? Here’s what happens to our planet between 1.5°C and 2°C of global warming


Overshooting the Paris climate target

Last week we saw unprecedented global protests under the banner of Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture climate strikes, as the urgency of keeping global warming below the Paris Agreement target of 2°C hit home. Thunberg captured collective frustration when she chastised the United Nations for not acting earlier on the scientific evidence. Her plea resonated as she reminded us that:

With today’s emissions levels, that remaining CO₂ budget [1.5°C] will be entirely gone in less than eight and a half years.

At the current rate of global emissions we may be back in the Pliocene by 2030 and we will have exceeded the 2°C Paris target. One of the most critical questions facing humanity is how much and how fast global sea levels will rise.

According to the recent special report on the world’s oceans and cryosphere by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), glaciers and polar ice sheets continue to lose mass at an accelerating rate, but the contribution of polar ice sheets, in particular the Antarctic ice sheet, to future sea level rise remains difficult to constrain.

If we continue to follow our current emissions trajectory, the median (66% probability) global sea level reached by the end of the century will be 1.2 metres higher than now, with two metres a plausible upper limit (5% probability). But of course climate change doesn’t magically stop after the year 2100.




Read more:
With 15 other children, Greta Thunberg has filed a UN complaint against 5 countries. Here’s what it’ll achieve


Drilling back to the future

To better predict what we are committing the world’s future coastlines to we need to understand polar ice sheet sensitivity. If we want to know how much the oceans will rise at 400ppm CO₂, the Pliocene epoch is a good comparison.

Back in 2015, we drilled cores of sediment deposited during the Pliocene, preserved beneath the rugged hill country at the Whanganui Basin. One of us (Timothy Naish) has worked in this area for almost 30 years and identified more than 50 fluctuations in global sea level during the last 3.5 million years of Earth’s history. Global sea levels had gone up and down in response to natural climate cycles, known as Milankovitch cycles, which are caused by long-term changes in Earths solar orbit every 20,000, 40,000 and 100,000 years. These changes in turn cause polar ice sheets to grow or melt.

While sea levels were thought to have fluctuated by several tens of metres, up until now efforts to reconstruct the precise amplitude had been thwarted by difficulties due to Earth deformation processes and the incomplete nature of many of the cycles.

Our research used a well-established theoretical relationship between the size of the particles transported by waves on the continental shelf and the depth to the seabed. We then applied this method to 800 metres of drill core and outcrop, representing continuous sediment sequences that span a time period from 2.5 to 3.3 million years ago.

We show that during the Pliocene, global sea levels regularly fluctuated between five to 25 metres. We accounted for local tectonic land movements and regional sea-level changes caused by gravitational and crustal changes to determine the sea-level estimates, known as the PlioSeaNZ sea-level record. This provides an approximation of changes in global mean sea level.

Antarctica’s contribution to sea-level rise

Our study also shows that most of the sea-level rise during the Pliocene came from Antarctica’s ice sheets. During the warm Pliocene, the geography of Earth’s continents and oceans and the size of polar ice sheets were similar to today, with only a small ice sheet on Greenland during the warmest period. The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would have contributed at most five metres to the maximum 25 metres of global sea-level rise recorded at Whanganui Basin.

Of critical concern is that over 90% of the heat from global warming to date has gone into the ocean. Much of it has gone into the Southern Ocean, which bathes the margins of Antarctica’s ice sheet.




Read more:
New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean


Already, we are observing warm circumpolar deep water upwelling and entering ice shelf cavities in several sites around Antarctica today. Along the Amundsen Sea coast of West Antarctica, where the ocean has been heating the most, the ice sheet is thinning and retreating the fastest. One third of Antarctica’s ice sheet — the equivalent to up to 20 metres of sea-level rise — is grounded below sea level and vulnerable to widespread collapse from ocean heating.

Our study has important implications for the stability and sensitivity of the Antarctic ice sheet and its potential to contribute to future sea levels. It supports the concept that a tipping point in the Antarctic ice sheet may be crossed if global temperatures are allowed to rise by more than 2℃. This could result in large parts of the ice sheet being committed to melt-down over the coming centuries, reshaping shorelines around the world.The Conversation

Georgia Rose Grant, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, Paleontology Team, GNS Science and Timothy Naish, Professor, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Arctic ice loss is worrying, but the giant stirring in the South could be even worse



Field camp on the East Antarctic ice sheet.
Nerilie Abram

Nerilie Abram, Australian National University; Matthew England, UNSW, and Matt King, University of Tasmania

A record start to summer ice melt in Greenland this year has drawn attention to the northern ice sheet. We will have to wait to see if 2019 continues to break ice-melt records, but in the rapidly warming Arctic the long-term trends of ice loss are clear.

But what about at the other icy end of the planet?

Antarctica is an icy giant compared to its northern counterpart. The water frozen in the Greenland ice sheet is equivalent to around 7 metres of potential sea level rise. In the Antarctic ice sheet there are around 58 metres of sea-level rise currently locked away.

Like Greenland, the Antarctic ice sheet is losing ice and contributing to unabated global sea level rise. But there are worrying signs Antarctica is changing faster than expected and in places previously thought to be protected from rapid change.

The threat from beneath

On the Antarctic Peninsula – the most northerly part of the Antarctic continent – air temperatures over the past century have risen faster than any other place in the Southern Hemisphere. Summer melting already happens on the Antarctic Peninsula between 25 and 80 days each year. The number of melt days will rise by at least 50% when global warming hits the soon-to-be-reached 1.5℃ limit set out in the Paris Agreement, with some predictions pointing to as much as a 150% increase in melt days.

But the main threat to the Antarctic ice sheet doesn’t come from above. What threatens to truly transform this vast icy continent lies beneath, where warming ocean waters (and the vast heat carrying capacity of seawater) have the potential to melt ice at an unprecedented rate.




Read more:
New findings on ocean warming: 5 questions answered


Almost all (around 93%) of the extra heat human activities have caused to accumulate on Earth since the Industrial Revolution lies within the ocean. And a large majority of this has been taken into the depths of the Southern Ocean. It is thought that this effect could delay the start of significant warming over much of Antarctica for a century or more.

However, the Antarctic ice sheet has a weak underbelly. In some places the ice sheet sits on ground that is below sea level. This puts the ice sheet in direct contact with warm ocean waters that are very effective at melting ice and destabilising the ice sheet.

Scientists have long been worried about the potential weakness of ice in West Antarctica because of its deep interface with the ocean. This concern was flagged in the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) way back in 1990, although it was also thought that substantial ice loss from Antarctica wouldn’t be seen this century. Since 1992 satellites have been monitoring the status of the Antarctic ice sheet and we now know that not only is ice loss already underway, it is also vanishing at an accelerating rate.

The latest estimates indicate that 25% of the West Antarctic ice sheet is now unstable, and that Antarctic ice loss has increased five-fold over the past 25 years. These are remarkable numbers, bearing in mind that more than 4 metres of global sea-level rise are locked up in the West Antarctic alone.

Antarctic ice loss 1992–2019, European Space Agency.




Read more:
Antarctica has lost nearly 3 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992


Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica is currently the focus of a major US-UK research program as there is still a lot we don’t understand about how quickly ice will be lost here in the future. For example, gradual lifting of the bedrock as it responds to the lighter weight of ice (known as rebounding) could reduce contact between the ice sheet and warm ocean water and help to stabilise runaway ice loss.

On the other hand, melt water from the ice sheets is changing the structure and circulation of the Southern Ocean in a way that could bring even warmer water into contact with the base of the ice sheet, further amplifying ice loss.

There are other parts of the Antarctic ice sheet that haven’t had this same intensive research, but which appear to now be stirring. The Totten Glacier, close to Australia’s Casey station, is one area unexpectedly losing ice. There is a very pressing need to understand the vulnerabilities here and in other remote parts of the East Antarctic coast.

The other type of ice

Sea ice forms and floats on the surface of the polar oceans. The decline of Arctic sea ice over the past 40 years is one of the most visible climate change impacts on Earth. But recent years have shown us that the behaviour of Antarctic sea ice is stranger and potentially more volatile.

The extent of sea ice around Antarctica has been gradually increasing for decades. This is contrary to expectations from climate simulations, and has been attributed to changes in the ocean structure and changing winds circling the Antarctic continent.

But in 2015, the amount of sea ice around Antarctica began to drop precipitously. In just 3 years Antarctica lost the same amount of sea ice the Arctic lost in 30.




Read more:
Why Antarctica’s sea ice cover is so low (and no, it’s not just about climate change)


So far in 2019, sea ice around Antarctica is tracking near or below the lowest levels on record from 40 years of satellite monitoring. In the long-term this trend is expected to continue, but such a dramatic drop over only a few years was not anticipated.

There is still a lot to learn about how quickly Antarctica will respond to climate change. But there are very clear signs that the icy giant is awakening and – via global sea level rise – coming to pay us all a visit.The Conversation

Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University; Matthew England, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow; Deputy Director of the Climate Change Research Centre (CCRC); Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Climate System Science, UNSW, and Matt King, Professor, Surveying & Spatial Sciences, School of Technology, Environments and Design, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How solar heat drives rapid melting of parts of Antarctica’s largest ice shelf



Scientists measured the thickness and basal melt of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

Craig Stewart, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

The ocean that surrounds Antarctica plays a crucial role in regulating the mass balance of the continent’s ice cover. We now know that the thinning of ice that affects nearly a quarter of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is clearly linked to the ocean.

The connection between the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s ice sheet lies in ice shelves – massive slabs of glacial ice, many hundreds of metres thick, that float on the ocean. Ice shelves grind against coastlines and islands and buttress the outflow of grounded ice. When the ocean erodes ice shelves from below, this buttressing action is reduced.

While some ice shelves are thinning rapidly, others remain stable, and the key to understanding these differences lies within the hidden oceans beneath ice shelves. Our recently published research explores the ocean processes that drive melting of the world’s largest ice shelf. It shows that a frequently overlooked process is driving rapid melting of a key part of the shelf.




Read more:
Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica predicted to bring more frequent extreme weather


Ocean fingerprints on ice sheet melt

Rapid ice loss from Antarctica is frequently linked to Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). This relatively warm (+1C) and salty water mass, which is found at depths below 300 metres around Antarctica, can drive rapid melting. For example, in the south-east Pacific, along West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea coast, CDW crosses the continental shelf in deep channels and enters ice shelf cavities, driving rapid melting and thinning.

Interestingly, not all ice shelves are melting quickly. The largest ice shelves, including the vast Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice shelves, appear close to equilibrium. They are largely isolated from CDW by the cold waters that surround them.

The satellite image shows that strong offshore winds drive sea ice away from the north-western Ross Ice Shelf, exposing the dark ocean surface. Solar heating warms the water enough to drive melting. Figure modified from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0356-0.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

The contrasting effects of CDW and cold shelf waters, combined with their distribution, explain much of the variability in the melting we observe around Antarctica today. But despite ongoing efforts to probe the ice shelf cavities, these hidden seas remain among the least explored parts of Earth’s oceans.




Read more:
Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf


It is within this context that our research explores a new and hard-won dataset of oceanographic observations and melt rates from the world’s largest ice shelf.

Beneath the Ross Ice Shelf

In 2011, we used a 260 metre deep borehole that had been melted through the north-western corner of the Ross Ice Shelf, seven kilometres from the open ocean, to deploy instruments that monitor ocean conditions and melt rates beneath the ice. The instruments remained in place for four years.

The observations showed that far from being a quiet back water, conditions beneath the ice shelf are constantly changing. Water temperature, salinity and currents follow a strong seasonal cycle, which suggests that warm surface water from north of the ice front is drawn southward into the cavity during summer.

Melt rates at the mooring site average 1.8 metres per year. While this rate is much lower than ice shelves impacted by warm CDW, it is ten times higher than the average rate for the Ross Ice Shelf. Strong seasonal variability in the melt rate suggests that this melting hotspot is linked to the summer inflow.

Summer sea surface temperature surrounding Antarctica (a) and in the Ross Sea (b) showing the strong seasonal warming within the Ross Sea polynya. Figure modified from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0356-0.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

To assess the scale of this effect, we used a high-precision radar to map basal melt rates across a region of about 8,000 square kilometres around the mooring site. Careful observations at around 80 sites allowed us to measure the vertical movement of the ice base and internal layers within the ice shelf over a one-year interval. We could then determine how much of the thinning was caused by basal melting.

Melting was fastest near the ice front where we observed short-term melt rates of up to 15 centimetres per day – several orders of magnitude higher than the ice shelf average rate. Melt rates reduced with distance from the ice front, but rapid melting extended far beyond the mooring site. Melting from the survey region accounted for some 20% of the total from the entire ice shelf.

The bigger picture

Why is this region of the shelf melting so much more quickly than elsewhere? As is so often the case in the ocean, it appears that winds play a key role.

During winter and spring, strong katabatic winds sweep across the western Ross Ice Shelf and drive sea ice from the coast. This leads to the formation of an area that is free of sea ice, a polynya, where the ocean is exposed to the atmosphere. During winter, this area of open ocean cools rapidly and sea ice grows. But during spring and summer, the dark ocean surface absorbs heat from the sun and warms, forming a warm surface pool with enough heat to drive the observed melting.

Although the melt rates we observe are far lower than those seen on ice shelves influenced by CDW, the observations suggest that for the Ross Ice Shelf, surface heat is important.

Given this heat is closely linked to surface climate, it is likely that the predicted reductions in sea ice within the coming century will increase basal melt rates. While the rapid melting we observed is currently balanced by ice inflow, glacier models show that this is a structurally critical region where the ice shelf is pinned against Ross Island. Any increase in melt rates could reduce buttressing from Ross Island, increasing the discharge of land-based ice, and ultimately add to sea levels.

While there is still much to learn about these processes, and further surprises are certain, one thing is clear. The ocean plays a key role in the dynamics of Antarctica’s ice sheet and to understand the stability of the ice sheet we must look to the ocean.The Conversation

Craig Stewart, Marine Physicist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Time will tell if this is a record summer for Greenland ice melt, but the pattern over the past 20 years is clear



Melting on top of sea ice off northwestern Greenland, June 2019.
Steffen M. Olsen/Twitter

Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

Greenland has been in the news a bit lately. From Huskies seemingly walking on water, to temperatures soaring to 20℃ above average for the time of year, to predictions of the vast ice sheet being lost entirely, what is going on?

At its most simple: ice melts when it gets too warm.

Of course, some ice melts every time summer rolls around, but the amount of Arctic ice that melts each summer is growing, and we’re waiting to see whether this turns out to be a record-breaking year for Greenland ice melt.

No part of the planet is free from the impacts of human-caused climate change. But Greenland, and the Arctic more generally, is experiencing the impacts particularly severely. Temperatures in the planet’s extreme north are rising twice as fast as the global average.

Amplification of climate change in the Arctic.




Read more:
Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica predicted to bring more frequent extreme weather


Greenland is warming so rapidly because of what climate scientists refer to as a “positive feedback”. Despite the name, these are not good. A better term might be “climate change amplifier”.

The Arctic has many “positive feedbacks” or “amplifiers” that worsen the effects of climate change here. For example, as snow and ice begin to melt, the surface darkens, allowing it to absorb more heat and thus melt even more.

This effect is most dramatic when snow and ice are lost completely, as in the case of the dramatic loss of the sea ice covering the Arctic ocean. Arctic sea ice loss is one of the major factors that explains why the Arctic is warming so much faster than the rest of the planet.

Another worrisome characteristic of climate change in the Arctic is the potential for ice melt to accelerate. The temperature threshold at which ice begins to melt means that once the climate has warmed enough to start melting ice, any further warming will rapidly cause an even larger amount of melting to occur. That is the reality beginning to play out in Greenland.

Beginning of the 2019 summer melt season

Last month, ice melt across the surface of Greenland made headlines. Surface melting spiked rapidly and was unusually strong for June. Melting was most intense around the edges of the Greenland ice sheet, and about 40% of the entire ice sheet surface was affected to some extent.

Greenland ice melt is typically very irregular during each summer, spiking as weather systems bring warm air masses over the ice sheet. Given this variability, it is not yet clear whether 2019 is going to be an unusually bad year for melting over Greenland – and whether it will rival the worst year on record, 2012, when the entire surface of the ice sheet experienced melting.

But what is very clear from observations since the 1970s (and completely consistent with simple physics) is that as the Arctic climate warms, the Greenland summer melt season is starting earlier, lasting longer, and becoming more intense.

Samples of older ice from inside Greenland’s ice sheet paint an even clearer picture of the changes that climate warming is causing. The amount of summer melting first began to increase in the mid-1800s, not long after human-driven climate warming began. Summer melt over the past two decades has reached levels roughly 50% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, and the speed of ice loss from the Greenland sheet has increased nearly sixfold since the 1980s.

Greenland melt intensity over the past 350 years.




Read more:
The Industrial Revolution kick-started global warming much earlier than we realised


Choices for the future

An ice sheet has existed on Greenland for millions of years. But the geological timescales of ice sheet growth and renewal are vastly outpaced by the human-caused changes we see today.

A study published in June this year, at the same time surface melting of the ice sheet was spiking, predicts that if human greenhouse emissions continue unabated, by the end of this century ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet could see the ocean rise by up to 33cm.

If all of the Greenland ice sheet were to melt, global sea level would rise by more than 7 metres. According to the same study, that could potentially happen within 1,000 years.




Read more:
Cold and calculating: what the two different types of ice do to sea levels


The evidence is abundantly clear: the rising temperature of the planet is causing more Arctic ice to melt during the northern summer. We cannot avoid further ice loss in coming decades, and people and ecosystems will have to adapt to this.

But there is still a window of opportunity to avoid the worst impacts of future climate change in the longer term. The evidence tells us that the only way to prevent the destruction of the Greenland ice sheet, and multi-metre rises in global sea level, is to make rapid, deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. That is a choice we still have a chance to make.The Conversation

Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.