Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Climatewatch – contribution of melting polar ice to sea level rise could be vastly underestimated

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
Climatewatch – contribution of melting polar ice to sea level rise could be vastly underestimated
01 Jun
2020
The contribution of melting polar ice to sea level rise could be vastly underestimated, says Marco Magrini

Last summer, Greenland shed 600 billion tons of ice, raising global sea levels by 2.2mm in just two months. Things have been going slightly better on the opposite side of the planet. While west Antarctica has been melting at a faster pace in the last decade, the east side of the continent’s ice mass has been growing steadily. Or, at least, that’s what scientists thought.

Stay connected with the Geographical newsletter!
signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

Get Geographical’s latest news delivered straight to your inbox every Friday!

Researchers at the University of California Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have recently warned that east Antarctica’s Denman Glacier might be prone to collapse. The glacier is a 12-mile wide stream of ice, lying atop bedrock. According to the paper, the glacier lost 268 billion tons of ice between 1979 and 2017. This is a mere fraction of what happened in Greenland last year, but using radar interferometer data from satellites the scientists found that, because of the ground shape beneath Denman’s western side, there is potential for a quick and irreversible retreat. 

Denman Glacier’s western flank flows over the deepest land canyon on Earth, plunging at least 11,000 feet (3,500 metres) below sea level. At the moment, the canyon is mostly cut off from the sea due to the ice piled inside and above it. But, as the glacier edge retreats, warm ocean water will pour into the canyon. ‘That means substantial increases in global sea levels in the future,’ remarked the authors. It is not about millimetres anymore, but rather one-and-a-half metres, or almost five feet. More than enough to start redrawing the geography of several low-laying countries and to bury a few Pacific islands forever. 

While the 20.7C recorded in Antarctica last February barely made the news, what should make the world worry is the relentless rise of average polar temperatures, with consequent ice melt. Climatologists never predicted such a rapid warming at the top and the bottom of the planet, where temperature change is felt three or four times more than in London, Dakar or Sydney. Greenland and Antarctica are losing mass six times faster than they were in the 1990s. In 2013, the IPCC projected sea level rise of 52–98cm by the end of the century. Many reckon it is a very conservative prediction. 

Being populated by just a few thousand scientists, Antarctica is the only continent you can write about without ever mentioning the word ‘coronavirus’. Yet, in recent years climate change has made South Pole tourism so much easier and cheaper that 78,000 visitors (+40 per cent) were projected for the summer season that just ended. In other words, that immunity record may change too.

Get Geographical delivered to your door!
signup buttonGeographical has been in print since 1935, during which time we have reported on many thousands of global issues, allowing readers to look past the boundaries and borders of their world. Our monthly print magazine costs £9.50 for three months, or £38 for a year. We hope you will conisder joining us. 

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Wildlife

Since 2006, tiger habitats have shrunk by more than 40…

Climate

Advances in space-based lightning mapping have allowed scientists to measure…

Energy

The amount of energy used by the wealthy minority dwarfs…

Wildlife

Left denuded and depleted of wildlife following a decades-long civil…

Climate

Katie Burton explores the practicalities and ethics of geoengineering, the…

Energy

Though the pandemic has gripped the world's attention, lying just…

Climate

The IPCC embraced the notion of carbon offset schemes in…

Geophoto

The shortlist for the 2020 Wellcome Photography Prize has been…

Climate

Millions have been displaced due to severe floods in central…

Wildlife

A portable DNA assay could revolutionise the way border officials…

Climate

A handy gathering of facts about carbon emissions with graphs…

Oceans

Researchers have revealed just how many polluting microfibres are released…

Wildlife

Increasing reports of seized jaguar fangs and skin suggest that…

Geophoto

Forced isolation has given many of us the chance to…

Oceans

A fifth of the ocean floor has now been mapped,…

Wildlife

Four ex-circus lions discovered in France are due to be…

Oceans

A roundup of some of the top discussions from the…

Energy

The agave plant, used to make Tequila, has proven itself…