Polar ice is melting at an unprecedented rate and accounts for a quarter of all sea level rise, researchers say.
Figures, published in Earth System Science Data, show there has been a five-fold increase in ice melt since the 1990s, and seven of the worst years have occurred in the last decade.
The research by a decade-long international collaboration between dozens of institutions called IMBIE (Ice sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise) compiled 50 satellite surveys of Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets between 1992 and 2020 to quantify the extent of ice loss.
During that time, more than 7,500 billion tonnes of ice has disappeared across both locations.
That’s about the amount of ice that would fit into a 20-cubic-kilometre chunk of ice.
“Ice losses from Greenland and Antarctica have rapidly increased over the satellite record and are now a major contributor to sea level rise,” says lead researcher Dr Inès Otosaka from Leeds University, UK.
Otosaka says continuous monitoring of the ice sheets is now required to forecast their behaviour and help plan human adaptation.
Dr Diego Fernandez, head of research and development at the European Space Agency that co-funds the IMBIE program with NASA, made the grim assessment that polar ice variations “have reached a scale where abrupt changes can no longer be excluded”.
Increased global temperatures due to ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions are the primary driver of ice melt in polar regions. If melting occurs at the same rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts 148-272 millimetres of average sea level rise could be solely attributed to the phenomena.
Polar ice melt has contributed 21mm to sea level rise since 1992.