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Climate Climate General

Antarctica's ice is rapidly melting, sea levels are rising and we should all be concerned

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by: Ariana M
Antarctica's ice is rapidly melting, sea levels are rising and we should all be concerned

We have all heard that the sea level is rising, but many feel that this change is insignificant, almost negligible. Indeed, this change has so far been happening very slowly – since 1900, the sea has risen only about 8 inches (20.3 cm) in total. However, more than a third of that increase has occurred in the past 25 years. So why is that happening and what can we expect in the years to come?

Antarctica’s ice is disappearing at alarming rates

Recent study done by the IMBIE (Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise) team, an international collaboration of polar scientists, has shown that Antarctica is quickly becoming one of the largest contributors to sea level rise. In 2012, it was estimated that Antarctic ice melt was causing global sea levels to rise by 0.2mm a year – however, this number has increased to 0.6mm per year.

This threefold increase is very significant, considering that it only happened within 5 years’ time. In order to understand why the ice is melting so much faster, the scientists had to study the changes in all 3 areas of Antarctica’s ice sheet: the Antarctic peninsula, West Antarctica and East Antarctica. It appears that West Antarctica has lost the highest volume of ice, thus being the region to contribute most to the sea level change.

The reason why West Antarctica is most susceptible to melting is because it is largely made up of glaciers that are located below sea level. Traditionally, when thinking of ice melting, we usually imagine it melting from above as it gets heated from the air, sunlight and infrared energy from the atmosphere. However, recent studies have shown that most of the melting occurs from below – and it is causing more melting.

The devastating melting cycle

When glaciers melt, they release fresh water into the ocean, making the surface around them less salty and therefore less dense. This slows down or in some cases even prevents natural mixing of the ocean. During winter, the cooler water from the surface cannot mix with warmer water below, allowing the latter to retain its heat and melt the glaciers from below. More fresh water gets released and this cycle repeats itself again, each time accelerating the rates at which the glaciers melt.

Currently, ice shelves hold the Antarctic ice sheet in place. The trapped warm waters flowing underneath the shelves can break them down into smaller pieces, making them unable to support the ice sheet. Melting of the ice sheet would lead to catastrophic consequences – West Antarctic part ice sheet alone would raise the sea levels by more than 3 meters (9,8 feet).

While West Antarctic is currently the biggest concern, it seems like East Antarctic is also being affected by this devastating cycle. Some of its largest glaciers are starting to show signs of melting and they have the potential of raising sea levels by 4,8 meters (16 feet). This problem is still in its early stages, but it obviously causes a lot of concerns about the future.

NASA to launch an ice-monitoring satellite

Many islands and coastal areas have already been affected by the sea level rise and accurate predictions could help minimize the negative impacts. In order to help scientists make these predictions, NASA is launching ICESat-2 – a new satellite that will measure the changing heights of Earth’s polar ice using 6 lasers. These lasers will send 10’000 pulses per second, allowing for the measurements to be taken with incredible precision. The ICESat-2 is scheduled to launch on 15th of September and the mission has been slated for 3 years, but it can be extended.

All of the researchers agree on one thing – sea level is rising at accelerated rate and it is likely directly linked to global warming. There is nothing we can do to reverse the sea level rise, but we can slow down climate change before it is too late.

Have you experienced the effects of sea level rise? Share your opinion with us in the comments!

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