A new report published by the National Academy of Sciences is warning that glaciers in Antarctica may have already reached a tipping point that will continue to see the destabilization of its ice sheets, even if rising global temperatures were to stop immediately, a development that could significantly accelerate the continued rise in global sea levels.

“Due to our past changes in climate there is a certain amount of sea level rise that will definitely occur in the future,” explains study co-author Alex Robel, a glaciologist and assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Focusing on the rapidly-accelerating melt of the Thwaites glacier, Robel’s team measured the likely outcomes of melting of Antarctic ice. It was revealed last summer that Antarctica’s ice sheets are melting three times faster than they were the decade before, with the massive Thwaites and Pine Island glaciers being among the two hardest-hit ice sheets on the continent. And earlier this year, huge Manhattan-sized chasms were discovered underneath Thwaites, caused by melting from beneath the disappearing mass of ice.

“It’s definitely distressing on a human level to think or realize the fact that there is a certain amount of not going back in terms of sea level rise that we’ve already committed ourselves to in the future,” Robel continues, regarding the possibility that many of Antarctica’s ice sheets may have already reached their tipping point. Although Antarctic ice loss may be inevitable, we still have the power to affect how rapid this ice loss is, and according to Robel, “our future actions can significantly change how much sea level rise will occur in the future.”

The report found that the amount of ice flowing out of the Thwaites glacier has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, dropping 35 billion tons of ice per year between 2009 and 2017 alone. “That’s a 3 percent contribution that wasn’t there 45 years ago,” according to British Antarctic Survey marine geophysicist Robert Larter.

Sea levels are currently rising at 3.3 millimeters per year, and overall the Thwaites glacier contributes to about four percent of that total. Roughly the size of Florida, Thwaites holds enough ice to raise ocean levels by a little over 2 feet (65 centimeters) if it were to melt entirely.

Thwaites also supports a number of neighboring glaciers that would represent an additional 8 feet (2.4 meters) of sea level rise–glaciers that would be under an increased threat of collapse if Thwaites itself were to slide off into the ocean. “If you have collapsed a whole glacial system then you’re creating a new front on the other glacial systems that were bordered to it. Things certainly won’t stop there,” Larter adds.

Despite Thwaites’ crucial role in the stability of the network of glaciers that surround it, it wasn’t actually the biggest looser when it came to ice melt, with the Ronne and Pine Island glaciers shedding 150.7 billion tons and 137.3 billion tons of ice in 2017, respectively; Thwaites was close behind, dropping 119.7 billion tons in the same year.

Aside from the possibility of having passed a point of no return for glacial melt, the report also illustrates that increasing instability in the ice sheets themselves increases the difficulty in forecasting the rate of sea level rise. “The more this marine ice sheet instability occurs, the wider the range of possible future sea level rise becomes,” Robel explains. “Not only that, but that range will start to skew towards scenarios of more rapid sea level rise.”

These wildcards underscore the importance of on-the-ground scientific expeditions to measure what’s actually happening in Antarctica in the present, to help keep future forecasts on track.

“Part of the aim of what we’re doing as scientists is trying to constrain the uncertainties and give better predictions, but in some ways the more we’re finding out the more uncertainties we’re discovering,” Larter says, having participated in scientific expeditions with the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.

15 Comments

    1. We are not deleting this comment because it does not include links to any of the fake news sites that spread these lies. However, it is a lie spread by cynical oligarchs who care more about their money today than the lives of their own children. Any rational person can easily discover the truth by following science. A refusal to believe scientific reality is willful ignorance, and climate change denial is as grave a sin as there is, a sin against humanity.

      1. no room for those with different views? and if you deleted it, why is it still there? you will perish in fire when the Lord returns!!!

  1. The idea that Antarctica is gaining ice is based on the discovery that East Antarctica has been gaining a statistically insignificant amount of ice over the past few decades; however these meager gains have been offset by much larger losses seen in West Antarctica’s more vulnerable ice shelves. Overall, Antarctica has been experiencing a net loss in its ice mass, despite minor gains in the East.

    Basically, those that are looking to deliberately confuse the issue, as per Whitley’s post, cherry-pick the East Antarctica ice gains to make it look like the overall situation is improving, when this is indeed not the case: this is where the “poppycock” actually lies, a half-truth that people wind up accepting as a full fact.

    However, even if Antarctica was experiencing a net gain in ice mass, that in no way contradicts the findings of the study, as they’re concerned with the acceleration of ice loss at the bottom of the world, not how much there is there to begin with.

    Might I suggest that, in the future, you don’t automatically go on the offensive when responding to something that runs against your beliefs. You’ll find that you’re more likely to get a receptive response if you ask a question regarding the issue, rather than dismissing the idea outright by calling someone a liar.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antarctic_ice_sheet#Sea_ice_and_land_ice

  2. Nature has ended this debate. ‘Different views’ are now mistakes and lies. The only debate that matters now is the one over what we need to do to survive, if we can.

    1. Thank goodness we are ALLOWED to make our own CHOICES, whether another individual CONSIDERS it a mistake or not, in this country! The day the choice is taken from us, is the day the FREEDOM fought for by so many of our ancestors, is put under the IRON FIST. I hope that NEVER comes to pass.

  3. Wow the trumpian trolls have invaded! Matt I can’t tell whether you are condemning Whitley for the science or supporting him or you just thought he was too harsh. And STU you’re joking right? One of those trumpian jokesters or maybe I’m just not very bright??

    I think Whitley’s response was very appropriate and scientific facts of this order are not a matter of “belief”.

  4. Will: I’m supporting Whitley here: my reference to his post is regarding the “cynical oligarchs” he had already described.

    Whit’s just being a bit blunt here, because there’s a lot of frustration amongst those that study the subject of global warming, since the “debate is long over, and we really should be past explaining these things to those that live in, as Whit puts it, “willful ignorance”.

    Bill Nye vents this very frustration in this (NSFW due to language) video from Last Week Tonight:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KYp8dYJKP2s

  5. Sorry Matthew F I guess I got annoyed by BF and Stu with their “different views”. Way past time for argument and blame now is the time to prepare and act. We humans have the capacity to survive and eventually thrive in these times but we have to pull together put away our smartphones, driverless cars, military power trips and hatreds of “others”-there are no others. Imagine what the world could be if we focused hearts and minds on renewing instead of mindlessly destroying our beautiful planet. But I’m afraid many will have crossover before that pulling together can happen.

    Thanks for Bill Nye’s exposition excellent and to the point no bs.

  6. While it CANNOT be denied that we are currently in a WARMING phase, SOMEBODY is going to HAVE TO return from the DEAD to PROVE to me that I am RESPONSIBLE for it!
    We have about the CLEANEST air of ANY civilized nation on the planet earth! While EVERYONE is entitled to their own OPINION, and MAY I STRESS, it is ONLY an OPINION, NOT a FACT, it will NOT do ANYONE any good to go off half-cocked and get CARRIED AWAY in a FRENZY!
    Consider what happens when a FULL glass of ice melts……Does the resulting liquid OVERFLOW the glass? I think we ALL know Why that is.
    As for the rising sea levels in the Northern Hemisphere, as I recall, THAT has been happening for YEARS, just ask the Dutch. The geology of our planet has not EVER been fully explained…we don’t even KNOW what lies below for CERTAIN …..It is ALL a GUESSING game. Hasn’t ANYONE applied common sense to ANY of this? The earth goes in cycles of warming and cooling. We are CAUGHT in a WARMING phase right now. ONLY my OPINION, but I think COMMON SENSE needs to be more commonly used. PROVE me wrong by FACTS, not CONJECTURE, PLEASE.

    1. There is no “guessing game” when it comes to the cause of the sharp increase in global temperatures seen over the past few decades, since the phenomenon has been directly studied for nearly a half century, with the results independently replicated by dozens of institutions, including the likes of NOAA, NASA/Goddard, East Anglia University, UC’s Berkeley Earth (a former climate-change skeptic group), and even Exxon (of all organizations!) found the exact same thing, right down to the degree: the burning of fossil fuels has added massive amounts of a lab-proven greenhouse gas, CO2, into the atmosphere, resulting in the 0.9°C increase in global average temperatures that we’ve seen so far.

      All natural sources that could account for such a dramatic increase in surface heat have been systemically ruled out. Solar output is at a 105-year low, with the Sun forecast to slide into a grand solar minimum, so it’s not Sun getting hotter; fluctuations in Earth’s orbit take place over tens of millennia, far to long a period to account for the temperature increase that’s taken only tens of years to unfold; short-term climate cycles, like the 3-to-5-year ones seen in ocean currents are accounted for in climate models, so they’re not to blame.

      Otherwise, there are three trends that correlate closely: carbon emissions from human activity has risen sharply since the start of the industrial revolution; in that time, atmospheric CO2 concentrations have risen proportionately; and over the same time period the global average temperature has risen in the same manner. If you overlay the charts of these three factors, they all match: no other element that could possibly account for this phenomenon is present or active. Correlation might not necessarily equal causation, but when three factors stand alone, it’s only common sense to conclude that they’re related.

      There is no guessing on this issue, and there is no conjecture involved at all. The consensus, coming from a multitude of independent scientific and industrial organizations, from myriad individuals of different scientific disciplines, whom have been studying this phenomenon for decades, is that human activity has warmed the planet to the degree where the system is now just starting to seek to balance itself.

      If it makes you feel any better, you, personally, aren’t at fault for this. *We* are to blame for this collectively, with an emphasis on groups that knew full well what the consequences were, yet chose to take our freedom of choice away by denying us the information that was key to solving the problem, and instead sowing the seeds of doubt through carefully crafted and placed lies to protect their profits and power.

      https://www.unknowncountry.com/headline-news/claim-that-exxon-hid-its-own-global-warming-research/
      https://earther.gizmodo.com/exxon-predicted-2019-s-ominous-co2-milestone-in-1982-1834748763

      Regarding the specific questions in your post: western nations might have the clearest air in terms of traditional pollutants, but it’s only within the last decade that CO2–a colorless, odorless, and otherwise benign gas–has been added to the list of pollutants by the EPA due to its harmful effects on the climate.

      Although a glass of ice will retain (roughly) the same volume when it melts, it’s not an appropriate analogy: this would hold for the melt of sea surface ice, a factor that isn’t adding to sea levels since the ice is already in the water, but the problem is that the melt of land-based glaciers is accelerating, adding more ice/water to the ocean’s volume. Additionally, water, like most substances, expands when it warms, an effect that is actually contributing to sea level rise in many regions faster than melting glaciers are.

      Ocean levels have indeed been rising since the end of the last ice age–hence the need for dikes in the Netherlands and the various lost settlements under the Mediterranean–but there has been an abrupt acceleration in this rise over the past few decades.

      If you require sources for the facts that I’ve presented here, I can provide them, although this website is a treasure trove of such information, all backed through 3rd party sources. It’s been my experience that individuals making claims contrary to what I’ve been discussing here never have sources that they can cite to back their guesses, conjecture, and opinions up with.

  7. Okay Charity you’re off the hook I absolve you of all responsibility for the current crisis or normal variation situation. I’m responsible along with 7-8 billion other humans who like me are seeking comfort and ease while participating in eating and crapping up our only home.

    You call for common sense a phrase that to me means practicality, getting out of your head, taking action based on what you sense/see in front of you or do I have the meaning wrong?

    Because what I see is rapidly escalating heat waves, 107 tomorrow in Paris, Fr, floods like never before, glacier melt that will/is raising sea levels because they rest on land and are melting into the sea.

    “PROVE me wrong by FACTS, not CONJECTURE, PLEASE.” Real world scientific data must not be your thing because you can search Wikipedia or google or USGS or maybe National Academy of Sciences for those disagreeable facts that common sense will tell are not conjecture.

  8. People deny for the following reasons: greed, on the part of the corporate oligarchs and their camp followers like Limbaugh, Trump, et al; fear, because they don’t want to face it; ignorance because they believe the fake news spread by the corporate oligarchs.

    Nature, unfortunately for us, doesn’t care. Nature is numbers, and the numbers are clear.

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