Sobering Finds in Most Comprehensive Study Ever on Antarctic Ice Loss

By Eric Betz | June 13, 2018 12:00 pm

Crevasses near the grounding line of Pine Island Glacier, Antarctica.
(Credit: Ian Joughin, University of Washington)

Some 3 trillion tons of ice has melted from Antarctica since 1992, and there’s not much time to change course. That’s according to a sweeping group of studies published Wednesday in the journal Nature that looks at the past, present and future of Antarctic ice sheets.

Scientists are calling it the most complete picture ever of ice loss on the southern continent.

“Scientists are really speaking with one voice and we hope that it will help the public understand the problem,” says project team member and ice sheet expert Beata Csatho of the University at Buffalo.

The main study looks at the past 25 years and shows that the ice melt in Antarctica raised sea levels by nearly one-third of inch. Two-fifths of that rise came between 2012 and 2017.

It may not sound like much, but sea level rise is not distributed evenly around the world, and even small amounts can increase flooding damage during storm surges. The changes will also likely impact ocean chemistry and marine ecosystems, the scientists said.

This main climate assessment is called the Ice Sheet Mass Imbalance Inter-comparison Exercise. It was led by Erik Ivins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds in England. Support came from NASA and the European Space Agency.

Trouble East and West

Many previous studies have shown ice melting from the southern continent, what’s different here is the broad scope and wide agreement on details among so many international researchers. The analysis boasts 84 scientists as co-authors and made use of 24 different satellite surveys.

In perhaps their most alarming find, Antarctica was melting at a steady rate — one-fifth of a millimeter per year — before 2012, when the rate suddenly tripled and stayed at that pace. The current melt rate is now faster than at any time over the past quarter century.

“This has to be a concern for the governments we trust to protect our coastal cities and communities,” Shepherd said in a media release.


Sea level contribution due to the Antarctic ice sheet between 1992 and 2017. (Credit: imbie/Planetary Visions)

The satellite data also showed that the most extreme melting came from two enormous glaciers in West Antarctica — Pine Island and Thwaites.

In addition to fast melting glaciers in West Antarctica, as well as the Peninsula, part of the problem is that East Antarctica isn’t gaining much ice. Climate change brings warm weather, which increases precipitation in many regions. This brings more snowfall to parts of the southern continent and helps offset sea level rise, past research suggested. But in this latest assessment, scientists say the vast reaches of East Antarctica have actually gained little ice since ‘92.

The Two Paths

The headline-grabbing paper was just one of a group of large studies published simultaneously in Nature. Others looked at the history of ice sheets across the continent, as well as the global influence of the Southern Ocean, which circulates around Antarctica.

Another study attempted to look 50 years into Antarctica’s future. Their findings showed that the decisions we make over the next decade will determine whether or not Earth is locked into an additional 3 feet of sea level rise. The team studied two different futures — one where humans take extreme action to avoid climate change and another where the planet’s governments do not tamp down greenhouse gas emissions.

They also imagined what could happen to the land in Antarctica itself without concerted regulation as the ice melts.

The scientists suggest that rampant mining, tourism and overfishing could decimate the landscape and its animals, introducing invasive species and changing the entire structure of ecosystems. Current international treaties prohibit such extreme resource extraction, but as the continent warms, it could become tough to resist, the scientists say. Permanent hotels could pop up along with a heavier human footprint. And because the local environment is so important to global ecosystems, the effects could extend far beyond the Antarctic Circle.


Unusual iceberg at Rothera Research Station, Antarctic Peninsula. (Credit: Andrew Shepherd, University of Leeds)

Sleeping Giant Wakes

The sobering results come as climate scientists gear up for several large-scale missions that will provide an even more detailed image of ice loss. Among them is a much-anticipated NASA satellite called ICESat-2, which launches this fall and will use lasers to study ice sheets. On the ground, the National Science Foundation has teamed with its UK counterparts at the Natural Environment Research Council on a $50 million mission to send eight teams of international researchers to poke and prod the fast-melting Thwaites Glacier.

The biggest questions now facing climate scientists are how much and how fast Antarctica might melt. With these sweeping efforts underway, scientists should have a much better idea of the long-term consequences over the coming decade — just as a crucial decision-making window closes.

Climatologist Chris Rapley of the University College London, who’s not involved in the study, said that, back in 2005, he’d suggested the sleeping giant seemed to be waking up. These latest results suggest the giant has begun “stretching its limbs,” he said.


Editor’s note: In a previous version, we incorrectly listed Chris Rapley as an author of the study. It has been updated.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
  • Kurt S

    What about the rebounding affect of the land? As the weight of the ice decreases, will not Antartica rise, creating a steeper slope for the remaing ice to slide toward the sea?

    • John Thompson

      There would also be the effect of subsidence of land under the oceans due to there being extra weight of water with sea level rise, so the oceans could get deeper without the exact same amount of rise in sea level as measured against the land/coast.

    • nik

      You would need amazingly sensitive equipment to measure it, so the effect, if any, can probably be safely ignored.
      When the tide rises in the North sea between the UK and Europe, the whole of the UK tilts very slightly towards Europe.
      This tilt is so slight that it is unnoticeable.
      The salt water tide rise is probably far greater in mass than the land Ice lost in Antarctica, if any.

  • Uncle Al

    whether or not Earth is locked into an additional 3 feet of sea level rise” Irrigate Australia and the American southwest until groundwater levels rise to historic levels. No problem.

    • StanChaz

      Better yet, flush out the current Trump-swamp.

      • Uncle Al

        Give back your stock gains, return your bonus, overpay your payroll deductions, pay somebody else’s heathcare costs, have your kids eat saltless tasteless cardboard school lunches (courtesy of Mr. Michelle), lose the Soviet of California to a North Korean nuclearization offset, be regulated out of your employment, lose Israel and the only decent hot pastrami in the Middle East for our soldiers, commit national pelosicide…and have a Transformer emerge from the Hildebeast’s back to eat Chuck Schumer’s genitalia – pig in a blanket.


        • AlDavisJr

          Listen to el rusbo and hannity much? You seem to use the same labels and names as the acolytes of said wannabe geniuses.

          • Uncle Al

            The Left is all about process not product, ideas not facts, Venezuela not Mar a Lago, cold fish Nancy Pelosi not hot mama Sarah Palin. Leftist condemnation of Freon-12 re Ozone Hole created a worldwide plague of expensive, corrosive, carcinogenic, inefficient refrigeration…and an enhanced Ozone Hole.

            Prancing lethal idiots.

          • Mike Richardson

            The Right, you mean. Fixed it for you.

      • OWilson

        Be careful what you wish for!

        The Earth has actually cooled since this “family of Russian spies” took office in 2016.

        The “Global Warming records” were set under the eight years of Obama/Hillary.

        Just sayin’ :)

        • Mike Richardson

          Another, more accurate statement, as NOAA put it, was that this past April was the third warmest ever recorded, after the records set in 2017 and 2018. Hardly evidence of any trend, particularly when previous records were the result of decades of carbon emissions under Republican and Democratic administrations. And given the current administration’s approach to fossil fuels, I expect we’ll see new records in the future.

          • OWilson

            Here’s an accurate statement about what NOAA actually says, Mikey! :)

            The latest monthly satellite data, as at May 31, 2018, posted as found:


          • Mike Richardson

            Care to provide the RSS figures for the satellite data obtained? Or the measurements taken at the surface of the earth, where we actually live? Even the graph you provided shows a clear upward trend, though it is the most conservative analysis (and therefore the one most favorable to your minimalist interpretation) of available data on warming. Notably, NOAA does not contradict the RSS analysis of their satellite data — and how could they, when Remote Sensing Systems provides expert processing of satellite data for NASA and other satellite operators? They also stand by their own ground based measurements, which closely align with the RSS findings, and show more warming than the snapshot satellite graphs you exclusively rely upon to cherry pick information to support your partisan views. And the loss of Antarctic ice, as discussed in the article above, continues to show the impact of that warming, regardless of one’s political ideology.

          • OWilson

            It is NOAA”s data, not mine. :)

            I have no time for your political dissembling today, Mikey!

            I refer all your questions to them! :)

            Have fun!

          • Mike Richardson

            MY “partisan dissembling” ? LOL! You truly have a gift for projection. Try not to get too much sun or alcohol in paradise today. I’ll just enjoy actually spending Father’s Day with my family. But your forfeit of any substantive reply did bring an early smile to my face.

          • OWilson

            Just keep a weather eye open, Mikey!

            Wouldn’t want you and your family to get flooded out yet again, and come here whining about Global Warming! :)

          • Mike Richardson

            You’re more likely to get hit by a multiple hurricanes (and I’m not talking about the mixed drink, though that’s pretty likely, too) where you live than I am to get flooded again, so watch out for weather (and karma) yourself. It’s just a shame others would have to suffer with you.

          • OWilson

            If you pray hard enough to your Global Warming Priests, it could happen :)

            But I’ve been visiting and living down here for 10 years, and been through most of them.

            A little common sense can keep you safe. :)

            (Bye the way, it’s Presidente Lite, all the way for me. Highly recommended on a hot day!)

            Now go find someone else who will pay attention to your deluded alternate universe!

            I’n done with you here!

          • Mike Richardson

            It has nothing to do with prayer, and everything to do with probability, another aspect of reality you tend to ignore when it pertains to you. And a little common sense, in addition to keeping you safe, should also lead you to assign a higher probability of correctness to the 97 percent of climate scientists who say humans are behind rising global temperatures and melting ice in Antarctica, and a lower probability to political ideologues arguing against the scientists. But in the meantime, since you’re done here, enjoy that summit of El Presidentes at your favorite watering hole while the weather’s nice. :)

          • OWilson

            For the record, just to correct another of your misquotes and distortion of my comments, given your penchant for accusing me of alcohol abuse :)

            It is NOT “El Presidentes”, it is Presidente Lite.

            Served ice cold, besides excellent Dominican coffee, it is the main drink of choice here in this hot climate.

            I can assure you that alcohol (or drug abuse) is not a significant social factor here in the islands!

          • Mike Richardson

            LOL! Well excuuuuse me! “Presidente Lite!” Obviously joking about your favorite beverage is such an unbearable outrage that you had to come back for the last word, despite declaring, “I’n [sic] done with you here!” 😀 It’s clear what’s important to you based on the frequency with which you mention it. That you discuss your love of alcoholic beverages with greater frequency than any family or significant other is as telling as your deflection from the topic of Antarctica’s melting ice, or NOAA’s ground based temperature readings. I guess I can understand why you’d rather talk about drinking than those other subjects. Stick with what you know best, I suppose.

          • OWilson

            Don’t forget to turn off the lights, Mikey!


    • okiejoe

      As Antarctic ice melts it runs into the sea. If you think it is a good idea to irrigate with Sea water you will have only a salty desert.

  • Bill Chapman

    I’m very concerned about climate change, but this article is not clear about several things.

    A couple of years ago, in 2016, I read on a NASA website that Antarctica was GAINING ice. Basically, it’s been gaining for thousands of years, and the 1 degree C of warming so far hasn’t been enough to stop this trend. There may be ice loss near the shores and especially on the floating sheets, but deep inland the temperature never rises above freezing, so nothing melts and snow just piles up. So is the loss of ice discussed in this article a NET loss of ice, or is it just a loss of ice from the floating sheets, that is offset by snow piling up deep inland?

    And they say “3 feet of sea level rise”. By when? That’s a big question. By 2050? By 2525? It makes a difference.

    • StanChaz

      The are various complexities to the term Antarctic “ice”, including often widespread and temporary surface sea ice surrounding the continent that is relatively quickly formed and dispersed by currents, wind and weather versus substantial ages-old glaciers that are the crux of the matter.

  • nik

    Floating sea ice, that melts, cannot raise sea levels.
    As ice melts, it reduces in volume, so it would cause a net drop in sea levels, not a rise.
    Also, latest reports are that the sea ice is expanding in Antarctica, even in summer, not reducing.
    The Arctic is still melting because it is affected by warm water currents that Antarctica lacks.
    The level of greenhouse gasses emitted by human activity, is trivial, when compared to the thousands of volcanoes constantly erupting gasses, mostly below the oceans, at the tectonic plate margins.
    The average global temperature, cannot be measured accurately, until there are recorders equally spaced on a global basis, which would require the same density of measurements to be taken in the polar regions, and in the uninhabited areas as the rest of the world. That is highly unlikely.
    The Earth has been in a ‘galactic’ ice age for the last 30+ million years, and present global temperatures during this Malenkovitch inter ice age are the coldest that they have been for 270 million years, since the Permian extinction.
    Reports to the contrary are false propaganda, and can be safely ignored.

    • okiejoe

      The problem of sea ice is that it is being replaced constantly as it melts by land ice which is sliding into the sea. The increase of floating sea ice is bad news because it shows that glacial collapse is increasing.
      The effect of human activity on the climate is not really trivial as the Earth exists on a “knife edge” and a seemingly trivial amount of change can push the climate out of equilibrium and into a rapid rate of change. We have been adding Greenhouse gasses at a rate thousands of times what has been seen in ancient times and that is shoving us off that equilibrium.

      It seems to me that the consequences of inaction are so horrendous that concerted action is necessary.

    • JWrenn

      Isn’t this report….the more recent report?

      • nik

        It seems not!
        Arctic ice is still melting due to the ”ocean conveyor” currents, but Antarctic ice has been advancing for several years,
        One group of scientists who chartered a ship to measure the ”melting ice” were surprised to find that the ice advanced so rapidly, in summer, that their ship became locked into it.
        Two ice breakers were sent to free the ship, one also became locked in the ice.
        The crews and the scientists were rescued by helicopter.
        Too much misinformation, these days, no one knows who to believe.
        Too many scientists are paid by government, and if they dont follow government policy, they’d lose their funding, and livelihood.
        A couple of high profile cases several years ago, one, when a Professed was sacked, blacklisted, and then had his character,and reputation assassinated got them all herded into line.

        • JWrenn

          Uhm, what do you mean “it seems not!”. Is that meant to be a rebuttal against this report that studies everything for the past 30 years? You didn’t say anything about it not including the most recent data…you just claim there is more recent data somewhere.

          I think you are wrong. Or just throwing out tin foil hat stuff to muddle the waters enough for your ideas to be semi acceptable.

          • nik

            First, CO2 caused ”global warming, or ”climate change” is a scam.
            Therefore anything that purports to support it is highly suspect, regardless of the source.
            Second, as the Earth has been in a ”galactic” ice age for the last 30 million years or so, and is also approaching the end of a Malenkovitch inter ice age, then the alleged ”massive warming,” is also ridiculous.
            Towards the end of an inter ice age, paradoxically, the climate will experience a warming. Its this warming that precipitates the ice age.
            Nothing to do with CO2, which is at its lowest, during this inter ice age, for 270 million years, since the Permian extinction.
            Some of the signs of the change, include; 1. the warming, 2. Increased occurrence of forest fires, 3. increased volcanic, and earthquake activity. 4. freak weather phenomena.
            Noticed any of that lately?
            Inter ice ages last for between 10 and 15 thousand years, as shown by deep ocean, and lake core drillings, covering the last million years, or roughly ten ice ages.
            This one has already lasted that long so is due to end in the near future.
            Historically, the change can take as little as 20-50 years.
            The change will be catastrophic, as all the major food growing areas, wont, as they will become too cold. The result will be total breakdown of society, and billions will starve.
            The USA has been preparing for such an event for the last 20-30 years at least.
            For some reality on Antarctic ice, see Bill Chapman’s comment below.
            The mass media in the US is nothing more or less than a propaganda machine.
            Famous quote, ”If you do not read newspapers, then you are uninformed, if you do read newspapers, then you are misinformed!”
            Mark Twain.
            Replace ‘newspapers’ with ‘mass media’ and you have the modern equivalent.

          • JWrenn

            Haha ok, have a good day.

          • nik

            You too!
            Remember, ”he who laughs last, laughs loudest, and longest.”
            The above is fully supported by about a million years of seabed core climate history, not computer models.

          • JWrenn

            No…it really isn’t. Your info is just wrong, but at a certain point if people want to believe the fringes then no amount of evidence will stop them from finding their own evidence…even if it doesn’t really exist. The information age has been turned on it’s head…by fake information.

          • nik

            Exactly! You are the epitome of that, and my information is not wrong.
            The ‘Galactic’ ice ages occur every 150 million years, approximately, and the Earth has been in one for the last 30 million years or so. [If you’re even a little bit clever, and have a modicum of intelligence you’ll be able to find out why.]

            Thats irrefutable, The Earth is the presently the coldest it has been for 270 million years.
            Hence there are Ice caps.
            30 or so million years ago, there were none, and there were forests in Antarctica. Their fossilised remains have been found recently.

            There’s an article in Discovery, discussing that very fact.

            A million years of sea bed and lake bed core information trumps, 20 years of carbon tax misinformation!

            Try googling geocraft dot com – graphs and then select images.
            You should get a graph showing CO2 and temperature over the last 600 million years. It may be an education for you.
            On it, the galactic ice ages are clear.
            So is the fact that the Earth is in one now.

            If what I say is true, do think governments would tell you, or would they lie?

            Remember, the people that brought you ”CO2 is about to cause runaway greenhouse heating” are the same people who gave you, ”Saddam Hussein has weapons…etc.” and if you still believe they ever existed, of course you’ll believe the CO2 myth!

            Good luck with your carbon tax misinformation.

          • JWrenn

            Please stop with the bs. It really does hurt us all when spew this crap out there. Where you are getting your info from has no real backing or correlation. Anyone can make a graph and draw conclusions but if the graph is not based on real data that can be verified it is at best a guess and at worst a lie.

            Believe what you want but don’t tell me to go educate myself on your sites that are dedicated to pseudo science and conspiracy theories.

          • nik

            There’s none so blind as those that wont see!
            Actually the graph was prepared by an accepted scientist, and the contents can be verified, by relation to other accepted ‘real’ data, as you call it.

            AS well as being ignorant, I see you also dont have the intelligence to deduce or research why the Earth enters a ‘galactic’ ice age every 150 million years. If you had done so, you will then realise that the graph is based on reliable science from different specialisations. However, that is obviously beyond your abilities.

            As to BS, you seem to be very familiar with it.

            Be happy in your ignorance, and continue to believe in political myths if it pleases you, but best keep it to yourself.

          • JWrenn

            The galactic ice age idea makes no sense and has been debunked. Please stop making fun of people just because they don’t believe in an unproven and unaccepted idea. Your whole idea is very entertaining but completely made up.

          • nik

            Show me the debunk!

          • nik

            I’m not making fun of you, I’m just ridiculing your ignorance of the real facts.

          • JWrenn

            Ridicule literally means to make fun of. They are synonyms.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            I guess that you don’t believe that we landed men on the moon because “people” tell you otherwise. What you are saying can go both ways. Beware of what you say.

          • JWrenn

            No, according to accepted historical record and a whole ton of evidence men landed on the moon. Just like according to historical record and a ton of empirical evidence there was no “rule” that the dems put into place regarding SCOTUS picks and they never blocked one. The “people” I listen to are historians, not talking heads.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            Where did SCOTUS and the dems come from? Just asking. I used the moon landings as a reference as to what people think, again both sides. As for SCOTUS, which ever side is in power, they grill someone from the other side until they are death warmed over.

          • JWrenn

            Haha actually I was completely off on that. I was in the middle of a debate on that and this popped up from a really old comment so…yeah that Scotus thing mad no sense here. Sorry.

            All of the ideas generally stand for this though. I believe in established facts not things people say on the internet, or random info from strangers. The moon landing is a good example actually. I will almost always believe NASA over some tinfoil hat site.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            I believe NASA over the tin (actually I think it is aluminum) hat club also. With climate change there groups of aluminum hats on both sides. It is becoming difficult to determine what is fact and what is not.
            Climate change peeps that drive around in their prius’s hybrids engines spend about as much as I have on my 13 year suv in gas and changing the batteries when they change ownership of the car.
            Those batteries, unless the price has really dropped are expensive. They are hazardous waste. Or you get the ones that swear up and down that man really is causing climate change, then go out, climb into their huge diesel pickup or huge suv gas guzzler. I laugh at them.

    • Steffen Scheibler

      Floating ice melting does not decrease the level of water. It remains constant, provided the temperature remains constant. So water at 0C with ice at 0C floating on it will have some ice sticking up above the surface of the water. The ice melts and the level of the water will remain the same.
      As the water warms up, to lets say 20C, the level of that water will rise. In a glass of water you will struggle to see that with your eyes (but some good equipment will show you that rise) but on the planet, where the ocean is miles deep, a tiny fraction of a % means a 2 or 3 foot rise… which you, as a human who may own a house at the sea side, will definitely notice.

      • nik

        Average 20 deg C rise of Ocean temperature is very unlikely, in the present climate.
        Reports of disappearing ice in the Antarctic are exaggerated, and out of context.
        A recent news item was that sea ice had advanced so rapidly, in summer, that an entire colony of penguins faced extermination, as they had been stranded miles from the sea, and could not waddle to it to feed.

        • Steffen Scheibler

          Where do I say the oceans will warm up to 20C? I said ‘if’, for the sake of an argument based on a glass of water with ice and water, both at 0C.

          But am I am sure with esteemed persons such as yourself, the CO2 scam will soon be exposed and we can focus on greater things :)

          • nik

            ”So water at 0C with ice at 0C floating on it …….”+”As the water warms up, to lets say 20C, …..”
            It’s a bit ambiguous, and can be misinterpreted.
            When world ocean temperatures start to fall, due to the approaching ice age, CO2 released by them will also fall, and the ‘believers’ will be overjoyed, until crops start to fail from CO2 starvation, and the cooler climate combined, and then they start to starve also.
            Then the anarchy that the USA has been preparing for, for the last decade or two will ensue, and they will cry, ”We’ve been lied to!”
            Surprise, surprise!
            {PS. Flatterer!};-)

  • bwana

    “…raised sea levels by nearly one-third of inch. Two-fifths of that rise came between 2012 and 2017.”

    The average person looking at these numbers would say “Why worry!”

    • John Thompson

      “It may not sound like much, but sea level rise is not distributed evenly around the world,”
      I have no idea how that would be possible.
      When the unbelievable is part of the assertion, it adds to people not being concerned.

      • JWrenn

        The moon

  • Lorie Franceschi

    When ice melts in your drink, the level of your drink does not raise. Sea ice will not cause the oceans to raise. If the Atlantic raise three inches then so does the Pacific, Indian, Baltic, Adriatic, Mediterranean and all the other areas that are connected. One ocean can not raise while another stays the same. Air pressure might change the height in certain areas, but not sea ice melt. Try it some time with your favorite drink of choice with ice in it.

    • Steffen Scheibler

      That is incorrect. Sea level does not rise evenly and it is also not distributed evenly. This is due to the Earth not being quite even, and the Earth rotating. Topographic and geologic reasons also play roles. Eventually, yes, things even out somewhat.

      And the Antarctic ice is not exclusively sitting in (or on) the ocean. Most of it sits on land and falls into the ocean, so it does very much raise sea levels directly as it falls in. The second direct factor causing a rise in sea level is that as the ice melts, the pressure pushing the land down is reduced and the land mass itself raises up, displacing yet more water. This effect has been very well documented in both Antarctica, but also in Greenland and Canada.

      The indirect rise in sea-level is the expansion of water as it warms up, which having less ice at the poles (and a warmer climate in general) also does.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Oh gosh, what happens if the climate change is what causes our good ol’ home’s magnetic poles to flip? Magnetic poles could flip at any time. I am much more worried about that than climate change. Two guys in Russia are the ones that started all this bs over some tree ring in Siberia. They have since recanted the report. People it is a blade that has two sides we could fall one way or the other. I tend to think climate change is a natural occurring device to help Earth right it’s self. So put that in your pipe and smoke it for those that don’t like my statements. It is what I have determined from all the facts I have seen both for and against climate change.


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