Antarctic ice shelves vanishing faster than previously thought

The rate of ice loss in the West Antarctic is accelerating, with ice shelves shrinking at an alarming rate, according to a new study, published in Science this week. If the shelves vanish, as the scientists fear they might, it could lead to sea level rises of up to three metres.

Shrinking rates have increased by 70% over the past decade.

“We are starting to lose more ice at a faster rate; we’re accelerating,” study co-author Helen Fricker, a climate scientist at University of California, San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography told reporters. 

“If this thinning continues at the rates we report, some of the ice shelves in West Antarctica that we’ve observed will disappear by the end of this century,” Fricker says.

And that will cause serious problems because of the huge amount of “grounded ice”, held up from entering the ocean by the shelves.

“A number of these ice shelves are holding back one metre to three metres of sea level rise in the grounded ice. And that means that ultimately this ice will be delivered into the oceans and we will see global sea-level rise on that order.”

The study was based on satellite measurements of the ice taken over 18 years – a time period that allows overall trends to be seen in a way that previous shorter-scale studies have not, Fricker says.

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