Collapse of West Antarctic ice sheet is “now irreversible”

Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, reports in The Observer, 17th May 2014: “Last Monday, we hosted a Nasa conference on the state of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, it could be said, provoked something of a reaction. “This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like,” ran a headline in Mother Jones magazine.

Multi-layered lenticular cloud hovering near Mount Discovery in Antarctica

Ross Island, Antarctica – taken by a Nasa ice-monitoring team.
Photograph: Michael Studinger/EPA

We announced that we had collected enough observations to conclude that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarctica was unstoppable, with major consequences — it will mean that sea levels will rise one metre worldwide. What’s more, its disappearance will likely trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which comes with a sea level rise of between three and five metres. Such an event will displace millions of people worldwide.

Two centuries — if that is what it takes — may seem like a long time, but there is no red button to stop this process. Reversing the climate system to what it was in the 1970s seems unlikely; we can barely get a grip on emissions that have tripled since the Kyoto protocol, which was designed to hit reduction targets. Slowing down climate warming remains a good idea, however — the Antarctic system will at least take longer to get to this point.

What this means is that we may be ultimately responsible for triggering the fast retreat of West Antarctica. This part of the continent was likely to retreat anyway, but we probably pushed it there faster. It remains difficult to put a timescale on it, because the computer models are not good enough yet, but it could be within a couple of centuries, as I noted. There is also a bigger picture than West Antarctica. The Amundsen sea sector is not the only vulnerable part of the continent. East Antarctica includes marine-based sectors that hold more ice. One of them, Totten glacier, holds the equivalent of seven metres of global sea level.

Controlling climate warming may ultimately make a difference not only about how fast West Antarctic ice will melt to sea, but also whether other parts of Antarctica will take their turn. Several “candidates” are lined up, and we seem to have figured a way to push them out of equilibrium even before warming of air temperature is strong enough to melt snow and ice at the surface.

Unabated climate warming of several degrees over the next century is likely to speed up the collapse of West Antarctica, but it could also trigger irreversible retreat of marine-based sectors of East Antarctica. Whether we should do something about it is simply a matter of common sense. And the time to act is now; Antarctica is not waiting for us.

Source: The Observer, 17th May 2014. For the full text, see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/17/climate-change-antarctica-glaciers-melting-global-warming-nasa

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