Sooner-Than-Expected Antarctic Glacier Melt Could Cause Oceans To Rise Six To 13 Feet

Gentoo penguins at Bernardo O'Higgins Station in Antarctica

Recent examination of the eastern portion of Antarctica reveals startling news. According to an international team of scientists, Totten Glacier is melting faster than anticipated, and when it goes, the world’s oceans may rise by as much as 13 feet.

Results of the most recent study of the East Antarctic Ice Shelf (EAIS) were published in the academic journal Nature Geoscience on May 16. Conducted by scientists from Imperial College London in association with research scientists from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and France, the study shows that the EAIS is not as stable as once thought.

The Imperial College London study compiled five years of aerial research of the gargantuan glacier. Using airplanes equipped with hi-tech monitoring gear, the researchers were able to measure the height and thickness of ice and bedrock topography. What they found was a series of cavities under the Totten glacier. These recently discovered openings allow relatively warmer sea water to melt and erode the underside of the massive moving ice formation. Until now, the eastern 98 percent of Antarctica was considered to be more stable than its smaller western counterpoint.

Steve Rintoul from the Australian Climate and Environment Cooperative Research Centre told ABC News Australia the following.

“The measurements we collected provide the first evidence that warm water reaches the glacier and may be driving that melt of the glacier from below.”

Should we be worried? Professor Martin Siegert, Co-Director of the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, says yes, we should.

“The evidence coming together is painting a picture of East Antarctica being much more vulnerable to a warming environment than we thought. This is something we should worry about. Totten Glacier is losing ice now, and the warm ocean water that is causing this loss has the potential to also push the glacier back to an unstable place.

Totten Glacier is only one outlet for the ice of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, but it could have a huge impact. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is by far the largest mass of ice on Earth, so any small changes have a big influence globally.”

Dr. Tas van Ommen from the Australian Antarctic Division agrees that the study results are indeed cause for concern.

“We’re realizing that the East Antarctic ice sheet’s probably not the sleeping giant that we thought or at least, the giant’s starting to twitch and we’re concerned.”

The Japan Times reports that the Totten Glacier underwent a similar melt several million years ago. During the Pliocene epoch, sea levels maxed out at around 65 feet higher than they are today. According to Professor Siegert, atmospheric levels of CO2 were 400 ppm, (parts per million) during the Pliocene epoch. That is precisely where CO2 levels are in 2016. As for average global temperature, it was a mere 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) higher during the last Totten Glacier melt than it is now.

Professor Siegert told The Japan Times that the Totten Glacier ice melt “could cross a critical threshold within the next century, entering an irreversible period of very rapid retreat. These are issues that we have to resolve in our society today. They are pressing right now.”

Research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, the Australian Antarctic Division, the Vetlesen Foundation and NASA’s Operation IceBridge.

[Photo by Natacha Mitrovica / AP Images]