The truth about Antarctica’s ice

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: Antarctica, Argentina, Environment, Oceans

A recent NASA study has been making headlines because it has revealed that Antarctica is gaining ice rather than losing it (which contradicts other studies, including one by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). And yet…

“We’re essentially in agreement with other studies that show an increase in ice discharge in the Antarctic Peninsula and the Thwaites and Pine Island region of West Antarctica,” said Jay Zwally, a glaciologist with NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study, which was published on Oct. 30 in the Journal of Glaciology.

And, while the study shows ice gain in East Antarctica and the interior of West Antarctica, it may not make much of a difference in the end. Zwally notes, “If the losses of the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica continue to increase at the same rate … I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”

In addition, while NASA concludes that Antarctica isn’t currently causing a rise in the oceans, this means that there’s another contributor out there.

“The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimeters per year away,” Zwally said. “But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimeters per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for.”

And while it’s heartening to know that Antarctica is colder and snowier than previously believed, this doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. This New York Times article portrays the results of a study with a stark headline: Study Predicts Antarctica Ice Melt if All Fossil Fuels Are Burned. As one of the study’s researcher notes, “To be blunt: If we burn it all, we melt it all.”

In other words, the scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research concluded, if we continue to burn the earth’s fossil fuels, all of its land ice will melt — not only Antarctica — and the total rise in sea level could be more than 200 feet. The New York Times spells out what this new world would look like:

A sea level rise of 200 feet would put almost all of Florida, much of Louisiana and Texas, the entire East Coast of the United States, large parts of Britain, much of the European Plain, and huge parts of coastal Asia under water. The cities lost would include Miami, New Orleans, Houston, Washington, New York, Amsterdam, Stockholm, London, Paris, Berlin, Venice, Buenos Aires, Beijing, Shanghai, Sydney, Rome and Tokyo.

This piece in National Geographic sums up NASA’s study with a Q&A that shows global warming isn’t something we can ignore. As University of Alaska, Fairbanks glaciology professor Erin Pettit tells National Geographic, “adding a little snow to Antarctica in no way offsets the complete disintegration of the West Antarctic ice sheet in the near future.”

In other words, despite some potentially good news about our southern continent, the problem of global warming is here to stay, and we must take better care of this planet. The very good news is that we can all make a difference — with our habits, our diets, our votes, and our wallets.

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