Melting of Antarctica is speeding up, worrying scientists

Andrew Shepherd shows an unusual iceberg near the Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. In a study released Wednesday

"Ice shelves fringe about three quarters of the Antarctic coast and they play a crucially important role in moderating sea level rise by buttressing and slowing the movement of glacial ice from the interior of the continent to the ocean".

Scientists involved in the new study said people should be concerned by the findings, but there was still time to take action.

Until now, scientists thought the retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was continuous.

The most dramatic change was found in West Antarctica, with ice loss rising from 53 billion tons per year in the 1990s to 159 billion tons per year beginning in 2012. Until then, melting Antarctic ice contributed 0.2mm to the rise of the global sea levels annually.

The video below, a time-lapse footage provided by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) in Tasmania, reveals the impact of large ocean waves as they batter the Antarctic ice shelf, triggering the collapse of a significant, previously weakened area which had already experienced fracturing.

"There are about 150 different estimates of ice loss from Antarctica and Greenland and they use different methods, they cover different proportions of the ice sheets and they cover different time periods", Shepherd said.

"The contribution of the Antarctic Ice Sheet is now the greatest source of uncertainty in projections of global mean sea level rise", Dr Bennetts said.

"This is the most robust study of the ice mass balance of Antarctica to date", said assessment team co-lead Erik Ivins at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. What is most concerning, is that nearly half of this ice loss has occurred in the past five years.

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The researchers, including those from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, reviewed decades of satellite measurements to reveal how and why Antarctica's glaciers, ice shelves, and sea ice are changing.

West Antarctica consists of frozen islands while the major part of East Antarctica could not be approached and also stable as it is plated on land mass unlike West Antarctica influenced largely by changing ocean temperature. This has led to an increase in sea levels of roughly three-tenths of an inch (less than 1cm), which doesn't seem like much. "Thanks to our satellites our space agencies have launched, we can now track their ice losses and global sea level contribution with confidence".

An ice wall in East Antarctica. By comparison, the areas of the Antarctic continent, Australia and the United States of America are about 14, 7.7 and 9.8 million square kilometres, respectively.

Such a rise alone sounds little but would make coastal floods during storms at high tides more damaging, he said.

Andrew Shepherd from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and Erik Ivins from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) led a group of 84 scientists from 44 global organizations in the research that gives us the most complete picture to date of the changes going on with the Antarctic ice sheet. This week's issue of Nature features several other reports on Antarctica and its future.

"What these narratives show us is that reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in line with the Paris climate agreement, and implementing effective policy can still minimise change in the Antarctic environment and the rest of planet".

Or alternatively, he continued, Antarctica could drive faster changes, ones that "begin to exceed what we're going to be able to cope with".

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