West Antarctic glaciers in 'irreversible' retreat, say scientists

The thawing of six huge Antarctic glaciers has passed the point of no return, say scientists, and will become a major contributor to rising sea levels in the coming decades. 

NASA/Handout via Reuters
The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is seen in this undated NASA image. Vast glaciers in West Antarctica seem to be locked in an irreversible thaw that may push up sea levels for centuries, scientists said.

Vast glaciers in West Antarctica seem to be locked in an irreversible thaw linked to global warming that may push up sea levels for centuries, scientists said on Monday.

Six glaciers, eaten away from below by a warming of sea waters around the frozen continent, were flowing fast into the Amundsen Sea, according to the report based partly on satellite radar measurements from 1992 to 2011.

Evidence shows "a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into a state of irreversible retreat", said lead author Eric Rignot of the University of California, Irvine, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The coastal ends of the glaciers rest on bedrock below sea level, holding back a vast weight of ice and making them vulnerable to melt, he said. He likened the process to uncorking a full bottle of wine while it was lying on its side.

This part of Antarctica would be a major contributor to sea level rise in coming decades and centuries since the glaciers hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 1.2 metres (4 feet).

"It's passed the point of no return," he told a telephone news conference.

Ice-penetrating radars showed no mountain ranges entombed under the ice, for instance, that could halt the flow. The fastest retreat was 34-37 km (21-23 miles) over the period in the Smith/Kohler glacier.

Even so, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, part of efforts to rein in global warming, could at least slow the slide of the Pine Island, Thwaites, Haynes, Pope, Smith and Kohler glaciers.

"We do think this is related to climate warming," Rignot said. The scientists believed that a build-up of man-made greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was affecting wind patterns around Antarctica, driving warmer waters towards the continent.

Almost 200 nations have agreed to work out a U.N. pact by the end of 2015 to combat global warming, which the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says will cause more floods, droughts, heat waves and higher seas.

Sea Levels

Monday's findings may also mean that scenarios by the IPCC for sea level rise are too low. The IPCC said last year that sea levels are likely to rise by between 26 and 82 cm (10 and 32 inches) by the late 21st century, after a 19 cm (7 inch) rise since 1900.

"The major ice sheets of this planet will have a larger and larger role in sea level rise in the decades ahead," said Sridhar Anandakrishnan, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in the study.

Last week, another study also suggested a part of the far bigger ice sheet in East Antarctica may also be more vulnerable than expected to thaw. The IPCC says it is at least 95 percent probable that warming is caused by human activities, led by the burning of fossil fuels.

Monday's study, to be published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, adds to signs of climate change under way.

On May 6, the Obama administration issued a study saying that warming "once considered an issue for a distant future has moved firmly into the present."

And the IPCC said in March there were signs of irreversible changes to tropical coral reefs and to the Arctic.

A separate study of the Thwaites glacier by the University of Washington in the journal Science also said it may have begun an unstoppable collapse that could last from 200 to 1,000 years.

A disappearance of the Thwaites alone would raise world sea levels by 60 cm (1.96 feet) but the "glacier also acts as a linchpin on the rest of the ice sheet, which contains enough ice to cause another three to four metres of sea level rise", it said.

The findings contrast with a paradoxical expansion of the extent of ice floating on the sea around Antarctica in recent winters that the scientists said may be part of natural variations. "The changes in the glacier reflect much longer-term processes," Tom Wagner, a scientist with NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said in the telephone briefing. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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