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?

  • 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!

    • 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.

  • 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!”


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