Global ice sheets melting at 'worst-case' rates: UK scientists

Katie Ramirez
January 28, 2021

By 2017, annual losses increased to 1.3 trillion tons.

Using satellite data, the researchers also found that the Earth lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994 and 2017, which is the equivalent to a sheet of ice 100 metres thick covering the whole of the UK.

That's according to a new study, published today in the journal The Cryosphere, calculating all the ice lost around the globe over the last few decades. "Our study is the first to look at all the ice that is being lost from the entire planet", said Slater.

These findings suggest that climate models may underestimate glacial ice loss by at least a factor of two if they don't account for undercutting by a warm ocean.

Half of all losses were from ice on land, and raised global sea levels by 35mm. That 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) block represents the average ice loss each year since the 1990s.

"That's like more than ten thousand "Back to the Future" lightning strikes per second of energy melting ice around-the-clock since 1994", William Colgan, an ice-sheet expert at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, told the Washington Post. Since the 1990s, Antarctica has lost more than 2.6 trillion tons and Greenland has lost almost 4 trillion. "It is one of many deep glaciers that are now in an unstable configuration, and will likely continue to retreat for many years, no matter what the ocean does".

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In a recent study led by Wood, scientists used these data to show that when it comes to glacier melting, the depth of the fjord matters. Without this information, it's extremely hard to arrive at a precise assessment of how much ocean water is being allowed into the fjords and how that affects glacier melt.

In Greenland, some of the same processes also are at play. Rising atmospheric temperatures have been the main driver of the melting of the planet's ice sheet. Over the past couple decades, warmer air temperatures have melted ice on Greenland at an "off-the-charts" rate. Yet if this current rate of ice loss acceleration is sustained, the planet's sea levels could rise by another 27 to 31 inches (around 70 to 80 cm) by the century's end, explained Bob Kopp, the director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University. Scientists also accounted for sea ice losses, as well as melting along the ice shelves extending off the coast of Antarctica.

The melting of ice across the planet is accelerating at a record rate, with the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets speeding up the fastest, research has found. EURACTIV's media partner, The Guardian, reports.

It is estimated that approximately a million people are in danger of being displaced from low-lying homelands for every centimeter of sea-level rise. But as the ice shelves shrink, they destabilize the ice sheet's glaciers and contribute to further losses.

Despite storing only 1% of Earth's total ice volume, glaciers have contributed to nearly a quarter of the global ice losses over the study period, with all glacier regions around the world losing ice. But its losses still are significant. Where the greatest amount of ice lost was from the floating ice in the polar regions, increasing the risks of albedo loss. Ice has a bright, reflective surface that helps beam sunlight away from the Earth; as it disappears, it allows the ocean to absorb more heat.

Funded by UK Natural Environment Research Council, the study was the first of its kind using satellite observations to examine all the ice that is disappearing on Earth.

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