Spread of Antarctic ice: no longer a global warming paradox?

While Arctic ice shrinks to record lows, Antarctic ice has been increasing in winter. New study suggests summer melt in Antarctic is creating a surface layer of freshwater that freezes more readily in winter. 

Andrew Halsall/Aurora ExpeditionsAP/File
An inflatable boat carries tourists past an iceberg along the Antarctic Peninsula in 2009. In recent years Antarctic ice has been increasing in the winter, which nevertheless may be caused by an increasing summer melt induced by global warming.

Global warming is expanding the extent of sea ice around Antarctica in winter in a paradoxical shift caused by cold plumes of summer melt water that re-freeze fast when temperatures drop, a study showed on Sunday.

An increasing summer thaw of ice on the edges of Antarctica, twinned with less than expected snowfall on the frozen continent, is also adding slightly to sea level rise in a threat to low-lying areas around the world, it said.

Climate scientists have been struggling to explain why sea ice around Antarctica has been growing, reaching a record extent in the winter of 2010, when ice on the Arctic Ocean at the other end of the planet shrank to a record low in 2012.

"Sea ice around Antarctica is increasing despite the warming global climate," said Richard Bintanja, lead author of the study at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

"This is caused by melting of the ice sheets from below," he told Reuters of the findings in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Ice is made of fresh water and, when ice shelves on the fringes of Antarctica thaw in summer because of upwellings of warming sea water, the meltwater forms a cool layer that floats on the denser, warmer salty sea water below, the study said.

In winter, the melt water readily turns to ice because it freezes at zero degrees Celsius, above sea water at -2C (28.4F).

At a winter maximum in September, ice on the sea around Antarctica covers about 19 million sq kms (7.3 million sq miles), bigger than Antarctica's land area. It then melts away into the ocean as summer approaches.

WINDS

Among other scientists, Paul Holland of the British Antarctic Survey stuck to his findings last year that a shift in winds linked to climate change was blowing a layer of melt water further out to sea and adding to winter ice.

"The possibility remains that the real increase is the sum of wind-driven and melt water-driven effects, of course. That would be my best guess, with the melt water effect being the smaller of the two," he said.

Bintanja's study also said the cool melt water layer may limit the amount of water sucked from the oceans that falls as snow on Antarctica. Cold air can hold less moisture than warm.

"Cool sea surface temperatures around Antarctica could offset projected snowfall increases in Antarctica, with implications for estimates of future sea-level rise," it said.

The U.N. panel of climate scientists has estimated that sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59 cm (7-24 inches) this century, more if thaws of Antarctica and Greenland accelerate.

The panel's main scenarios assume that Antarctica alone will make sea levels fall by between 2 and 14 cms this century because more snowfall will extract water from the sea.

But Sunday's study said that Antarctica was losing about 250 billion tonnes of ice a year - equivalent to 0.07 millimetre (0.003 inch) of sea level rise a year, Bintanja said. "Antarctic mass loss seems to be accelerating," it said.

Another study in Nature Geoscience said Antarctica's snowfall had been over-estimated by between 11 and 36.5 billion tonnes a year because of fierce winds blasting many regions.

Strong winds created conditions to "sublimate" snow, or make it pass from a frozen state to a gas without first becoming liquid, a U.S.-led team wrote.

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