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Warm water threatens vast Anatarctic ice shelf (+video)

A new study indicates that a large ice sheet is at risk. Warm water from below is causing it to melt.

By Chris WickhamReuters / May 9, 2012

This file photo from Greenpeace shows a crack in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica. A new study indicates that by the end of the century a huge ice shelf in Antarctica will melt, contributing to sea levels worldwide.

AP Photo/Greenpeace, Morgan

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LONDON

Scientists are predicting the disappearance of another vast ice shelf in Antarctica by the end of the century that will accelerate rising sea levels.

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A review of decades of satellite data has found West Antarctic ice shelves are increasingly tearing away from stabilizing bay walls.

The Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf fringing the Weddell Sea on the eastern side of Antarctica has so far not seen ice loss from global warming and much of the observation of melting has focused on the western side of the continent around the Amundsen Sea. But new research from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany says the 450,000-sq-km ice shelf is under threat.

"According to our calculations, this protective barrier will disintegrate by the end of this century," said Dr Harmut Hellmer, lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature this week.

The huge ice shelves that float on the seas fringing Antarctica provide a buffer against warming waters eating away at the base of the much larger glaciers behind them that sit on the land.

"Ice shelves are like corks in the bottles for the ice streams behind them," said Hellmer. "They reduce the ice flow.

"If, however, the ice shelves melt from below, they become so thin that the dragging surfaces become smaller and the ice behind them starts to move."

Hellmer and his team predict the melting of the Filchner-Ronne shelf could add up to 4.4 mm per year to rising global sea levels.

According to the latest estimates based on remote sensing data, global sea levels rose 1.5 mm a year between 2003 and 2010 due to melting glaciers and ice shelves, the scientists say. This is on top of an estimated 1.7 mm annual rise due to the expansion of the oceans as the water warms.

Costly Sea Defences

The research was funded by the European Union's ‘Ice2sea' program, set up in the wake of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that highlighted ice-sheets as the most significant remaining uncertainty in projections of rising sea levels. Projections from the Ice2sea project will feed into the fifth IPCC report due in 2013/2014.

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