Unstable Antarctic Glaciers Could Cause Rapid Sea Level Rise

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While scientists worry about the Arctic permafrost melting and exposing ancient microbes and contributing to the sea level rise, many experts fear that unstable Antarctic glaciers could result in even faster sea level rise. According to new research, Antarctic ice hides a serious instability which could cause the melting flow to accelerate and flow into the ocean. That would cause the sea level to rise much faster than previously predicted.

A group of scientists studied Antarctic glaciers for six years and found that five closely-observed glaciers doubled their ice loss rates. The National Science Foundation warns that Thwaites Glacier threatens to crumble before its instability based on the model used in the study. It could quickly force the melting flow into the ocean and cause the sea level to rise.

Scientists predicted a scenario of melting ice flow in the coming 50 to 800 years, but they can’t be 100% certain because the climate often fluctuates and changes. They need more data to drive accurate conclusions. Scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the University of Washington made 500 ice flow simulations for Thwaites Glacier and used the calculations to predict how unstable Antarctic glaciers are.

What sounds even more dreadful is that even if climate change declined and global warming stopped at some point, the glacier would remain unstable and would push ice into the sea at an accelerated rate in the coming centuries. Researchers also used the present-day ice melt rate in their calculations because they wanted to learn more about what causes unstable Antarctic glaciers.

“If you trigger this instability, you don’t need to continue to force the ice sheet by cranking up temperatures. It will keep going by itself, and that’s the worry,” said lead author Alex Robel of Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in a statement. “Climate variations will still be important after that tipping point because they will determine how fast the ice will move.”

“After reaching the tipping point, Thwaites Glacier could lose all of its ice in a period of 150 years. That would make for a sea level rise of about half a meter (1.64 feet),” NASA JPL scientist Helene Seroussi added.

The new findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the research was funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA.

Unstable Antarctic glaciers have caused another problem for scientists as well. It’s becoming more important to forecast and predict glacier movements, which leads to more uncertain scenarios. That will make it extremely difficult to plan protection from floods in the future.

“You want to engineer critical infrastructure to be resistant against the upper bound of potential sea level scenarios a hundred years from now,” Robel said. “It can mean building your water treatment plants and nuclear reactors for the absolute worst-case scenario, which could be two or three feet of sea level rise from Thwaites Glacier alone, so it’s a huge difference.”

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