Recent NASA satellite images and space-based measurements of the thickness of Earth’s polar ice sheets show they are melting much more rapidly than we thought. Large areas of ice in southeast Greenland, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula are changing rapidly and scientists don’t understand why this is happening so fast. NASA?s Eric Rignot says, “Earth’s polar ice sheets are changing over relatively short time scales, that is, decades versus thousands of years.”

Understanding how polar ice sheets evolve is vital to predicting the Earth?s future. “The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets together hold enough ice to raise sea level by 230 feet,” says Rignot. “Even a small imbalance between snowfall and discharge of ice and melt water from ice sheets into the ocean could be a major contributor to the current sea level rise rate of .07 inches a year and impact ocean circulation and climate.”

Melting of Antarctic ice is hard to calculate because the ice sheet is not well covered by existing satellites. NASA?s educated guess is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is thickening in the west, thinning rapidly in the north, and probably losing mass overall by roughly 15.5 cubic miles a year, enough to raise the sea level by about 0.006 inches yearly. Radar altimetry shows ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea Embayment are rapidly thinning, possibly in reaction to a warmer ocean. The NASA study reveals that Greenland’s ice sheet is losing 12 cubic miles of mass a year due to rapid thinning near its coasts. That’s enough to raise sea level .005 inches annually. Rignot says, “Rapid coastal thinning cannot be explained by a few warm summers and is attributed to a dynamic ice sheet response.”

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