Humanity ‘may have lost control’ of West Antarctic Ice Shelf melting, scientists warn

‘Our actions today likely will make a difference further down the line in the 22nd century and beyond, but that’s a timescale that probably none of us here will be around to see’

Stuti Mishra
Climate Correspondent
Tuesday 24 October 2023 17:52 BST
Related: Nasa visualisation shows increase in Earth’s surface temperature over time

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Humanity may have “lost control” of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, a new study has warned.

Research from the British Antarctic Survey, the UK’s polar research institute, found that accelerated melting this century is inevitable, regardless of drastic emissions cuts.

“It appears we may have lost control of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf melting over the 21st century,” said Dr Kaitlin Naughten, who led the study.

“Our actions today likely will make a difference further down the line in the 22nd century and beyond, but that’s a timescale that probably none of us here will be around to see.”

How this melting will contribute to global sea-level rise is unclear. If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, ocean levels would rise around 16 feet (five metres) - although this scenario is unlikely.

East Antarctica, which holds the vast majority of ice, so far remains stable.

Still, Dr Naughten said that separate research suggests that the melting will contribute to around three feet (one metre) of global sea level rise by 2100 - an alarming prospect for hundreds of coastal cities around the world.

The climate crisis, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, is warming the atmosphere, and much of this excess heat is absorbed by the ocean.

It’s having a pronounced effect on polar regions and in Antarctica, the western side of the continent is suffering severe erosion under the ice sheet.

The ice sheet is melting at a rate three times faster than during the 20th century.

It’s likely that a tipping point has been passed to avoid the instability of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, other ocean experts said. Still, rapidly cutting emissions is critical to preventing worst-case scenarios.

“This work fits with existing evidence that suggests that the collapse of ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea is imminent, such as the Thwaites Ice Shelf - vastly studied within the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration project,” said Dr Tiago Segabinazzi Dotto, a senior research scientist at the National Oceanography Centre.

““However, the pace of this collapse is still uncertain - it can happen in decades for some specific ice shelves or centuries.”

Other described the “sobering” research as a call to action.

“We can still save the rest of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, containing about ten times as many metres of sea level rise, if we learn from our past inaction and start reducing greenhouse gas emissions now,” Dr Alberto Naveira Garabato, professor in physical oceanography at the University of Southampton, said.

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