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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.

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It will also inform plans for major capital spending on sea defenses to protect Europe's coastlines, particularly areas of economic importance like London, with its tidal barrier on the River Thames, and the port of Rotterdam. A large part of the Netherlands is below sea level and protected by an elaborate system of dykes.

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Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey, who heads the Ice2sea program, told Reuters the Alfred Wegener Institute's findings add to evidence that warming oceans are having the greatest impact on the ice sheets, as opposed to atmospheric changes or the legacy of some long-term change decades or even hundreds of years ago.

"What people need to know with a sense of urgency is what is going to happen to sea levels over the next few decades," said Vaughan. "In those terms, these results are very big news indeed."

Vaughan is cautious about precise projections of the impact on sea levels. "For me, those numbers are about what might be plausible," he said. "I think we need to do some more work with the ice sheet models to determine exactly what sea level rises we might expect, but those are plausible numbers."

All other things being equal, the polar ice sheets reach a balance where the amount of snow going in each year is broadly matched by the number of icebergs coming out, but subtle changes like those associated with global warming, can affect that balance quite rapidly.

Vaughan said there was clear evidence that the widely-reported disintegration of the Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves in 1995 and 2002 respectively, had led to the ice sheets that fed them moving faster into the sea, some of them many times the rate seen before collapse.

The scientific focus on the melting ice in the Amundsen sea is down to the fact that this is where it is happening now, but Vaughan said although the Weddell

Sea is not seeing ice loss at the moment, the German research supports the view that it will spread to other areas.

If there is a lesson for climate scientists, it's "don't behave like the infant school football team and follow the ball," he said.

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