According to research published today in the journal Nature, the Antarctic’s ice sheets have been melting at a rate three times higher than ever before, pouring 200 billion tons of water into the world’s oceans and raising the sea level by a half-millimeter every year.
Although that number doesn’t seem so scary, this tripled melt rate has happened only in the last 10 years, and the melting’s only getting faster. Antarctica, the planet’s largest ice sheet, lost 219 billion tons of ice annually from 2012 through 2017 — a number that rose from only 73 billion in 2008. Compare that with 25 years ago, when Antarctica lost a way lower 49 billion tons of ice annually.
“We took all the estimates across all the different techniques, and we got this consensus,” said Isabella Velicogna, an Antarctic expert at the University of California at Irvine and one of the study’s authors in The Washington Post. Velicogna also said that the increased rate of melting started happening in earnest around 2002 and that, in the last five years, alone, the rate has accelerated to five times faster (!!!) than in previous years.
These changes are happening so quickly because of the Antarctic’s two largest glaciers, Pine Island and Thwaites. With the Thwaites glacier in particular, scientists worry that if melting continues at the current rate, it will set off a global catastrophe — potentially creating an entirely new ocean.
This study comes just two years after a separate one in which scientists (Velicogna included) warned that within 50 years, the sea level could rise by more than three feet and cause irreversible damage. When ice melts at such high volumes, it pushes water away at rapid rates, raising sea levels in far-away places. Such melts could have permanent consequences in the US, leaving parts of the eastern seaboard and California permanently submerged.
“The kinds of changes that we see today, if they were not to increase much more . . . then maybe we’re talking about something that is manageable for coastal stakeholders,” Rob DeConto, a researcher not involved in the study, told The Washington Post.
But he added a caveat: Even if we don’t manage to slow global warming down at this point coastal submersion and the catastrophic losses associated with it could happen nonetheless.
(Photo via Mario Tama/Getty Images)