Why has the 'ice tongue' from the Antarctic Pine Island Glacier shrunk?

Why has the 'ice tongue' from the Antarctic Pine Island Glacier shrunk?

"Understanding the causes of recent catastrophic ice shelf disintegrations is a crucial step towards improving coupled models of the Antarctic Ice Sheet and predicting its future state and contribution to sea-level rise", the authors write in their paper.

Scientists involved in the new study said people should be concerned by the findings, but there was still time to take action.

Antarctica's ice sheets hold 60 to 90 percent of the planet's fresh water. Removal of the ice shelf buttressing effect also caused a 3- to 8-fold increase in the discharge of glacial ice, behind the shelf, into the ocean, in the year following disintegration.

Nearly three trillion tonnes of ice has disappeared from Antarctica in the past 25 years and the rate is increasing.

What's happening in East Antarctica is extremely important because it has by far the most ice to give, being capable of raising sea levels by well over 100 feet.

"Greenhouse gas emissions must start decreasing in the coming decade to have a realistic prospect of following the low emissions narrative and so avoid global impacts associated with change in Antarctica, such as substantial sea level rise", he said.

The threefold increase in ice loss from the continent as a whole is a combination of glacier speedup in West Antarctica and at the Antarctic Peninsula, and reduced growth of the ice sheet in East Antarctica.

Analysis of the phenomenon - detailed this week in the journal Nature - suggests such a reversal of fortune is unlikely to happen again.

This in turn is pushing global sea levels up by 0.6mm a year, three times the rate seen in 2012.

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Rising sea levels pose a major threat to ecosystems, coastal areas and climate as a whole.

The Pine Island Glacier's 400-metre thick ice shelf must have therefore been grounded on the ridge for several decades as the satellite images of the glacier gathered by the researchers confirm.

In 2017, that number had risen to 0.6mm per year.

Tom Wagner, cryosphere program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington, hopes to welcome a new era of Antarctic science with the May 2018 launch of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) mission and the upcoming launch of NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2).

Study co-author, Dr Phil Reid, from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, said the research identifies a previously under-appreciated link between sea ice loss and ice shelf stability.

That exact location matters, as the communities living on the US coastline will see the sea levels rise, according to climate scientists.

"We can not count on East Antarctica to be the quiet player, and we start to observe change there in some sectors that have potential and they're vulnerable", said Velicogna. So we should expect "periods of stability interspersed with rapid retreat", he said.

Unlike single-measurement studies, this team looks at ice loss in 24 different ways using 10 to 15 satellites, as well as ground and air measurements and computer simulations, said lead author Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds in England. "But remember for the northern hemisphere, for North America, the fact that the location in West Antarctica is where the action is amplifies that rate of sea level rise by up to an about additional 25 percent in a city like Boston or NY".

Forces that are driving these changes are not going to get any better in a warming climate.

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