Member Highlight: Miles Of Ice Collapsing Into The Sea

2017-05-22T10:27:45+00:00 May 22, 2017|
Recent computer forecasts suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century. (Eye Ubiquitous / UIG)

(Click to enlarge) Recent computer forecasts suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century. (Eye Ubiquitous / UIG)

The acceleration is making some scientists fear that Antarctica’s ice sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration.

Because the collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheet could raise the sea level dramatically, the continued existence of the world’s great coastal cities — Miami, New York, Shanghai and many more — is tied to Antarctica’s fate.

(From The New York Times / By Justin Gillis) — Four New York Times journalists joined a Columbia University team in Antarctica late last year to fly across the world’s largest chunk of floating ice in an American military cargo plane loaded with the latest scientific gear.

Inside the cargo hold, an engineer with a shock of white hair directed younger scientists as they threw switches. Gravity meters jumped to life. Radar pulses and laser beams fired toward the ice below.

On computer screens inside the plane, in ghostly traces of data, the broad white surface of the Ross Ice Shelf began to yield the secrets hiding beneath.

“We are 9,000 miles from New York,” said the white-haired engineer, Nicholas Frearson of Columbia. “But we are connected by the ocean.”

A rapid disintegration of Antarctica might, in the worst case, cause the sea to rise so fast that tens of millions of coastal refugees would have to flee inland, potentially straining societies to the breaking point. Climate scientists used to regard that scenario as fit only for Hollywood disaster scripts. But these days, they cannot rule it out with any great confidence.

Yet as they try to determine how serious the situation is, the scientists confront a frustrating lack of information.

Recent computer forecasts suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century. That is double the maximum increase that an international climate panel projected only four years ago.

But those computer forecasts were described as crude even by the researchers who created them. “We could be decades too fast, or decades too slow,” said one of them, Robert M. DeConto of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “There are still some really big question marks about the trajectory of future climate around Antarctica.”

Alarmed by the warning signs that parts of the West Antarctic ice sheet are becoming unstable, American and British scientific agencies are joining forces to get better measurements in the main trouble spots. The effort could cost more than $25 million and might not produce clearer answers about the fate of the ice until the early 2020s.

For scientists working in Antarctica, the situation has become a race against time.

Read the full story here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/18/climate/antarctica-ice-melt-climate-change.html?_r=1