Melting away: Antarctica ice loss increases six-fold since 1979

Rising sea levels are putting the Antarctic ice sheet under threat

Antarctic melting has raised global sea levels more than 1.4 centimetres between 1979 and 2017, said the report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed United States journal, on Monday.

The researchers, including those from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (Nasa) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, were able to find out that between 1979 and 1990, Antarctica shed an average of 40 gigatonnes of ice mass annually, the PTI report said.

"We are on a path for rapid sea level rise in the coming one century or so" says lead author Eric Rignot.

Melting in West Antarctica and the Antarctica Peninsula account for about four-fifths of the ice loss.

"In order for us to really ensure that we don't lose too much ice, we really need to work hard at getting those emissions - at least keeping them at what they are today but even trying to get them lower than they are today, we certainly can't let them get higher because all the evidence suggests that's just not good for the ice sheets. That, to me, seems to be reason for concern".

That kind of sea-level rise would result in the inundation of island communities around the globe, devastating wildlife habitats and threatening drinking-water supplies. A study from past year found little to no loss of ice from East Antarctica, notes the Associated Press.

The research is important because it teases out the pattern of growth and decay of the ice sheet over geologic time, including the presence of sea ice, a thin and fragile layer of frozen ocean surrounding Antarctica. However, if the ice flow speeds up, the ice sheet's losses can outpace snowfall volume.

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The ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland may collapse even if we limit global warming.

This type of breakneck sea level rise has happened before.

Until now, most research has shown the majority of melting is happening in the West. Fast flowing inland ice streams of the West Antarctic are buttressed by floating ice shelves, which - if diminished or lost - raise the possibility of a runaway flow of West Antarctica's marine ice. The study notes that the glacier is "grounded on a ridge with a steep retrograde slope immediately upstream", meaning that additional losses could cause the glacier to rapidly retreat.

"The Wilkes Land sector of East Antarctica has, overall, always been an important participant in the mass loss, even as far back as the 1980s, as our research has shown", Rignot said. "As climate warming and ozone depletion send more ocean heat toward those sectors, they will continue to contribute to sea level rise from Antarctica in decades to come".

The study found East Antarctica, which contains most of the continent's ice, was responsible for more than 30 percent of the continent's contribution to sea level rise.

The bottom line is that Antarctica is losing a lot of ice and that vulnerable areas exist across the East and West Antarctic, with few signs of slowing as oceans grow warmer. The latest research shows East Antarctic melting deserves "closer attention", according to the PNAS report.

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