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Antarctic Riddle: How Much Will the South Pole Melt?

One of the biggest question marks surrounding the fate of the planet’s coastlines is dangling from its underbelly. 

The melting of the Antarctic ice sheet has long been a relatively minor factor in the steady ascent of high-water marks, responsible for about an eighth of the 3 millimeters of annual sea-level rise. But when it comes to climate change, Antarctica is the elephantine ice sculpture in the boiler room. The ice sheet is so massive that its decline is, according to the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, “the largest potential source” of future sea level rise. Accurately forecasting how much of it will be unleashed as seawater, and when that will happen, could help coastal communities plan for surging flood risks.

Credit: Peter Doran/National Science Foundation

A study published Aug. 14 in Earth System Dynamics — one that took more than 2 years and 50,000 computer simulations to complete, combining information from 26 atmospheric, oceanic, and ice sheet models from four polar regions — has helped scientists hone their forecasts for this century’s Antarctic thaw. And the results of the global research effort were more sobering than the findings of most of the more limited studies that came before it.

The world’s seas could rise anywhere from less than half an inch up to more than a foot by the end of this century solely because of the effects of balmier waters fanning Antarctica’s underside, causing ice to melt, icebergs to calve, and ice and snowpack to slough into the sea, the scientists calculated. The upper limit of that projection is more than double earlier estimates, with scientists attributing the change to advances in models.

“The largest uncertainty that we have with regards to Antarctica is, how much of the warming reaches the continent through the ocean, and how much melting does it cause?” said Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research’s Anders Levermann, who led the study. Levermann was also a lead author of the sea level rise chapter in the most recent IPCC assessment.

Those figures do not include additional sea level rise caused by melting glaciers, by the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, by the expansion of warming water, or from the effects of groundwater pumping, which shifts water from aquifers to the seas. If the most recent IPCC projections for those sources of rising seas were combined with the new Antarctic figures, the U.N. group’s upper limit for overall sea level rise by century’s end would increase to 119 cm, or nearly 4 feet. That’s up by more than a fifth compared with the figure included in last year’s assessment.

That’s a lot of water. For comparison, seas have risen about 8 inches since the turn of the 20th Century, as temperatures have risen by 1.5°F, due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels. That has increased rates of flooding across coastal U.S. and driven some Pacific Islanders to seek asylum in foreign lands. The hastening pace of sea level rise threatens to reshape the lives of more than a billion coastal dwellers and imperils potentially tens of trillions of dollars worth of infrastructure.

Of course, upper limits are just that — they represent the highest levels of sea-level rise for which science currently says coastal planning departments should brace. “It’s this upper limit that’s important for coastal planners,” said Levermann.

But rising upper limits come with rising median projections, which, by definition, have a 50 percent likelihood of being surpassed. Median projections produced through the new study suggest a rise of several inches is likely due to Antarctic melt alone.

The vast range of lower and upper limits for sea level rise caused by Antarctic ice-sheet melting that were included in the new paper — more than a foot — were partly the result of uncertainty over how much greenhouse gas pollution the world will churn out during the coming decades. The upper limit assumes that annual greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase. But it also reflects the vast uncertainty in ice sheet and other models that were combined to simulate Antarctic melting.

Credit: wikipedia

“A reason for our higher SLR [sea level rise], and for the range in SLR, is that the present study also includes the uncertainty in the climate and ocean forcing driving the ice sheet models of Antarctica,” said Sophie Nowicki, a NASA Goddard scientist who coauthored the new paper. “In other words, more potential climatic futures are considered.”

The melting of the other great ice sheet, which blankets Greenland, is driven largely by rising air temperatures. Those processes can be difficult to understand. But the processes that melt the Antarctic ice sheet are even more convoluted. Antarctica is further from the equator than is Greenland, which keeps the air frigid even in summer, shielding most surface ice from melting. Unlike in Greenland, much of the Antarctic ice sheet is submerged below sea level, causing it to melt from beneath and crumple into the sea as oceans absorb heat that’s accumulating the atmosphere.

Antarctica’s ice sheet is more than a mile deep on average, holding enough water to raise sea levels 200 feet should it all melt. That means the southern ice sheet has more potential to flood the world than does its boreal counterpart — although the Antarctic melt is taking longer to kick into gear.

The melting of the two ice sheets was responsible for a third of sea level rise from 2002 to 2011, according to numbers in the recent IPCC report. The Antarctic ice-sheet melt caused about 40 percent of that; Greenland’s ice-sheet caused 60 percent. The melting of the ice sheets are playing growing roles in coastal floods.

It seems that the more we learn about the forces that cause ice sheets to melt, the more vulnerable we realize they are to wither. The IPCC cited “improved modeling” when it raised its forecasts for sea level rise in its recent report, compared with the projections it published in 2007.

Natalya Gomez, a post-doctoral fellow at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Science at New York University who researches ice sheet and sea level interactions, says the numbers published in the new paper are “not the final answer.” Gomez says they will continue to be refined in the coming years as ice-sheet models and other models continue to improve. She warns that the sea level rise projections could increase even further as models evolve.

The beauty of the new work, says Gomez, who was not involved in the research, lies in the fact that the scientists behind it have developed a tool that will propel a nascent and challenging field.

“What they’re assessing — the range of possible responses of the Antarctic ice sheet to future warming — is really challenging,” Gomez said.

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Soaring Temps in West Antarctica May Fuel Sea Level Rise


By Troy V (Westminster / CO / 80031)
on August 25th, 2014

There is a balancing act in that as the world warms, the Antarctic region should get more snow, and this would transfer some water from the oceans back to the land.  I can’t imagine it would make up for the increase in melting, but was that taken into account?

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By Ian O (Christchurch NZ 8053)
on August 31st, 2014

It rarely ever snows in Antarctica. The vast quantity of ice has accumulated over millions of years from ice crystals settling from the stratosphere as the intense cold causes anabatic winds to ‘fall’ outward off the polar plateau.
I don’t like your chances of there being much of an increase in snowfall unless there is a change to the way the winds blow down there.

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By Herman A (Alex) Pope (Houston/Texas/77062)
on August 26th, 2014

The Polar Ice Cycles, in the North and in the South have been well bounded for ten thousand years, in the same range. 

Temperature and Sea Level are not going to go out of those bounds.

When Polar Sea Ice Thaws, it turns on snowfall that does replace more ice on land than melts each year.

When Polar Oceans are frozen, it turns off snowfall and less is replaced than melts each year.

These Cycles repeat.  Look at the Actual Data for the most recent ten thousand years.

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By Rodel Urmatan (Houston, TX)
on August 29th, 2014

All these assertions you wrote here, can you direct me to peer reviewed scientific articles to prove them?  Because, that’s how scientific process works for hundreds of years - the very same scientific process that you used and studied that lead you to NASA.

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By ray delcolle
on August 26th, 2014

“There’s a difference between sea ice and land ice. Antarctica’s glaciers and ice sheet have been melting at an alarming rate.”

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By Bruce Jensen
on August 29th, 2014

I think Mr. Pope makes some assumptions based on past history that cannot be relied upon in the near future.  It ain’t the same ballgame any more, Mr. Pope.

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By Lor Munkten (Dallas, tx 75001)
on August 31st, 2014

Seems like the question is theoretical with unknown factors determining the outcome which, in turn, relies on varying circumstances of which are also unknown. In short, uncertainty is the only answer.
Given that the AGW crowd has been wrong so many times. Take it with a grain of salt.
What of this?

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By NorEastern
on September 2nd, 2014

The Daily Mail is about the last source anyone should be quoting. There are absolutely no facts behind their supposed “satellite images”. 2014 is going to be the third smallest Arctic sea ice year since the dawn of satellite imaging. Just look at for the real data

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By Atanacio Luna (Quail Valley/ CA / 92587)
on September 2nd, 2014

Not Sanguine: If less excess fresh water is causing increased albedo do to greater ice cover, what about when there is a pause in fresh water out-flown, then melting could accelerate in sequential waves. I wonder how the model accommodate this cycle?

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By Atanacio Luna (Quail Valley/ CA /92587)
on September 2nd, 2014

Sanguine: Three mm is 1083 cubic kilometers of fresh water which is increasing sea level per year. Soil moisture can accommodate 28 mm of sea level, “deserts to gardens” level. That’s a lot, but, Greenland melting will contribute 8,000 mm, and if Antarctica contributed another 12,000 mm, that is 20 meters in say; 600 years. If we could get that much as fresh water: What do we do with all that water? New Pluvinergy (conjectural) designs propose that we can. Can the underground capacity of the 88% of the earth that is not ice covered accommodate it? I guess yes, does anyone have a better angle than a guess on it?

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By Asu Peartea
on September 20th, 2014

Often when the Antarctic glaciers are mentioned, we are told that they sit on land features below sea level. What are the possibilities of seawater incursion occurring under the glaciers, thus flooding into the areas below sea level and floating greater parts of the glacier? This might cause an inland glacier to become an inland sea with ice floating on top. If this were to occur, how much would the floating ice of this recently flooded inland sea, obviously connect to the oceans or there wouldn’t have been the under-flooding, contribute to the rise of sea levels? Depending on how fast the incursion occurred, I think it might lead to massive rises in sea level well in excess of ANY current estimates.

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