Climate crisis

Worst-case scenario of Antarctic ice sheet collapse could still be avoided

We can still slow ice loss in the Antarctic.

©NASA/USGS, Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

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The collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet is one of the most dramatic potential consequences of global warming.

If the West Antarctic ice sheet does collapse into the ocean, it could cause a sea level rise of more than 10 feet, bringing devastating floods to coastal communities.

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©NASA/USGS, Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

A new study published in Nature Communications shows that ice sheet loss in some regions is slowing down, suggesting the worst-case scenario of its collapse isn’t inevitable.

Researchers studied satellite imagery to determine the ice sheet on the Amundsen Sea Sector of the West Antarctic coastline has slowed its decline.

©Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Westerly winds typically stir up ocean water, drawing the warmer, saltier water from below the surface toward the coastline, speeding up ice sheet loss.

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©NASA/USGS, Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

But between 2003 and 2015, these winds were weaker, and the retreat of the Amundsen Sea Sector ice sheet slowed accordingly.

While it is hopeful, the finding doesn’t point to easy solutions for ice sheet collapse.

©Copernicus EU/ESA, Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

The weakening winds around the Amundsen Sector were caused by an unusual low-pressure system. In the nearby Bellingshausen Sector, winds were normal and ice sheet loss continued to accelerate.

©Copernicus EU/ESA, Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

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But the finding does suggest that ice sheet loss isn’t at the point of no return it was once thought to be. The speed of ice melting can still be influenced by climate conditions.

©NASA/USGS, Dr. Frazer Christie, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

The study’s results show not only that predictions of future ice sheet loss are missing crucial factors, but also that the worst effects may still be avoidable with swift action on climate change.

“There is an intimate link between the climate and how the ice is behaving. We have the ability to mitigate West Antarctic ice losses — if we curb carbon emissions.”

Lead author Dr. Frazer Christie

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