Antarctic Ice Melt Could Get Worse, But Humans Can Slow It Down

The melting of Antarctic ice shelves could double in the next 35 years and lead to ice shelf collapse by the end of the century if fossil fuel consumption continues at the current rate, according to a new study published Monday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Floating ice shelves, which act as a natural “door stop” by slowing land-based ice sheet melt into the ocean, are affected by both air and ocean temperatures, explained Luke Trusel, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. As air and ocean temperatures rise due to climate change, the shelves melt at an accelerating rate.

Melting ice shelves alone do not contribute significantly to sea level rise, but if those shelves collapse and ice from glaciers and ice sheets then melts in the ocean, that would create a much more significant issue, Trusel said. Previous studies have estimated that the melting of the Antarctic ice sheets could contribute as much as 200 feet to global sea level rise.

Trusel said the study looks at how Antarctic ice shelf melt changes over time in response to climate change. “What we see is that melt kind of behaves like a threshold system — either an ice shelf is pretty cold and not much melting is happening at all, or if you warm it up even a little bit, you exponentially increase the melt rate,” he said.

That current threshold, Trusel said, is somewhere around the average Antarctic Peninsula summertime temperature of -3 degrees Celsius (about 26 degrees Fahrenheit). The peninsula is the northernmost part of the continent.

Trusel said temperatures have exceeded this key threshold over the past few decades on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the progressive warming from north to south has caused —> Read More