A large portion of West Antarctica has been reduced to slush.
Last year, the world of environmental research was deeply shaken by the publication of updated sea level rise projections for 2100. The 2016 study nearly doubled prior estimates, implying “monumental and irreversible increases in sea levels” solely based on ice melt contributions from Antarctica.
Now, the study is proving to be on point, as scientists have just discovered a major melting event has taken place in West Antarctica. The largest known floating ice platform, the Ross Ice Shelf, has been affected by more than 300,000 square miles of melt— or, more surface area than the state of Texas.
The arctic poles are destabilizing, glacier ranges are shifting and an area previously thought to sustain subzero temperatures forever, is now rapidly fading away. “The unusual extent and duration of the melting are linked to strong and sustained advection of warm marine air toward the area, likely favoured by the concurrent strong El Niño event” says the new study, published June 15th in Nature.
“You probably have read these analyses of West Antarctica, many people think it’s slowly disintegrating right now, and it’s mostly thought to be from the warm water eating away at the bottom of critical ice shelves,” says David Bromwich, one of the authors of the new study. “Well, that’s today. In the future, we could see action at the surface of these ice shelves as well from surface melting. So that makes them potentially much more unstable.”
Research suggests that as “the frequency of extreme El Niño events is projected to increase over the course of the twenty-first century”, it is possible that the Ross Ice Shelf will “experience extensive surface melt and retreat substantially by 2100”.
Melting from Antarctica was formerly believed to be only a small contributor to sea level rise, with thermal expansion as the main culprit. According to NOAA, “The oceans are absorbing more than 90 percent of the increased atmospheric heat associated with emissions from human activity.” Ocean rise puts human infrastructure in jeopardy and causes more surge storms and flooding.
“Under the high emissions scenario, the 22nd century would be the century of hell,” says Ben Strauss from Climate Central. “There would really be an unthinkable level of sea rise. It would erase many major cities and some nations from the map … That century would become the century of exodus from the coast.”
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