Down near the South Pole, change is afoot, and it’s going to have a big impact on the rest of the planet. The West Antarctic ice sheet is melting—and fast, according to NASA researchers, who said Monday that a total collapse of the ice sheet, which is about the size of Greenland, now appears to be “unstoppable.”
And that means sea level could rise 10 feet or more in the next 200 years.
In two scientific papers coming out this week, researchers from NASA, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Washington point out that warm ocean water forced to the surface by Antarctic winds is melting glaciers that support the entire West Antarctic ice sheet. Once the glaciers thin enough, scientists expect the entire ice sheet to disintegrate, too.
“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, told the New York Times with notable alarm. “There’s nothing to stop it now.”
A number of forces—natural and manmade—appear to be interacting to melt the ice. Even so, “many researchers consider human-induced global warming to be a significant factor,” the Times reports. And the Washington Post notes that, according to the researchers, “a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions could slow the melt, while an increase could speed it slightly.”
What does that mean for our already disappearing coastlines? Worldwide, we could see a 15-foot rise in sea levels, the researchers predict. That’s significantly higher than estimates cited in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Using the best previously available estimates, the IPCC predicted sea level to increase only about three feet by 2100. (New scientific findings like this is why the IPCC constantly issues new reports—and why those reports have gotten more alarming in the past few years, as the science has gotten both more definitive and pointed to more rapid change than expected.)
Which makes the news that much more shocking. “This Is What a Holy Sh*t Moment for Global Warming Looks Like,” states a Mother Jones headline. Although no one knows exactly how high the seas will go, “in the grand scheme of things … the consequence would be a very different planet.”
To see how more rapid sea-level rise might affect a coast near you, check out Climate Central's interactive graphic.
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