The study warns that the Pine Island ice shelf in Antarctica is more vulnerable than previously thought — and could cause the global sea level to rise by 1.6 feet if it collapses.
- Pine Island ice shelf traps enough ice to raise sea level by 1.6 feet
- He could be more prone to complete disintegration than previously thought
- In a warm climate, birth events are likely to become more frequent
- Experts hope the study points to the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change
Roughly the size of England, the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica is one of the largest and fastest glaciers in the world.
The glacier is responsible for nearly 25 percent of the ice loss from Antarctica – equivalent to the amount of water in 13,000 Olympic swimming pools.
But a new study warns that the Pine Island ice shelf – the ice shelf that controls the flow of ice from the Pine Island glacier – may be more vulnerable to complete disintegration than previously thought.
Alarmingly, experts from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) say its collapse could cause global sea levels to rise by 1.6 feet (0.5 metres).
A new study has warned that the Pine Island ice shelf – the ice shelf that controls the flow of ice from the Pine Island glacier – may be more vulnerable to complete disintegration than previously thought.
Pine Island Glacier
The Pine Island Ice Shelf controls the flow of ice from the Pine Island Glacier – roughly the size of England – into the Amundsen Sea.
This is a critical role because the glacier is one of the world’s largest and most rapid changes.
It is also responsible for nearly 25 percent of the ice loss from Antarctica.
This is equivalent to the amount of water in 13,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Previous studies have shown that the Pine Island ice shelf is becoming increasingly fragile due to two major processes.
First, the ice shelf suffers from increased thinning as a result of the increased amount of sea ice melt.
Meanwhile, calving events have also increased in recent years, as ice breaks away from icebergs.
Now, in a new study, researchers from BAS have shown that the combination of birth and thawing will likely cause them to disintegrate faster than previously thought.
“This study highlights the extreme sensitivity of ice shelves to climate change,” said Dr. Alex Bradley, ocean modeller at BAS and lead author of the study.
“It shows that the interaction between calving and thawing can promote the disintegration of the Pine Island ice shelf, which we already thought was vulnerable to collapse.”
To reach this conclusion, the team used advanced ocean modeling techniques to simulate the effects of ongoing birth events.
The graphic shows how the Pine Island Glacier Ice Front retreated from 2009 to 2020
Previous studies have shown that the Pine Island ice shelf is becoming increasingly fragile due to two major processes
Their simulations showed that calving events could lead to further thinning of the ice shelf, which in turn would make the ice shelf more prone to calving.
This suggests the possibility of a feedback loop between the two processes and an acceleration of the total ice shelf collapse.
This would reduce the ice shelf’s ability to stop the flow of ice from Pine Island Glacier into the sea and increase its contribution to global sea level rise.
“The complete disintegration of the Pine Island ice shelf would have severe consequences not only for the Pine Island glacier but also in West Antarctica where it is believed to play an essential role in maintaining the stability of the West Antarctic ice sheet,” Dr. Bradley explained.
Experts warn that as temperatures rise, birth events are likely to become more frequent.
They hope the new study will point to the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
The Pine Island glacier isn’t the only one at risk of collapse – earlier this month, a study warned that Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier is ‘also catching its fingernails’.
BAS researchers have discovered that the glacier – widely known as the Doomsday Glacier – has retreated twice as fast as previously thought over the past 200 years.
For the first time, scientists have drawn a high-resolution map of a critical region of the sea floor in front of Thwaites, giving them a window into how quickly the glacier is receding and moving past.
The stunning images show off new geological features on the flag, and also provide a kind of crystal ball to see Thwaites’ future.
Alarmingly, analysis of the new images indicates that the rate of decline Thwaites has documented recently is small compared to the fastest rates of change in the past.
Melting ice and ice sheets will have a ‘dramatic effect’ on global sea levels
Global sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet (3 meters) if the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica collapsed.
Sea-level rise threatens cities from Shanghai to London, to lower swaths of Florida or Bangladesh, and to entire countries like the Maldives.
In the UK, for example, an elevation of 6.7 feet (2 metres) or more could put areas such as Hull, Peterborough, Portsmouth, parts of East London and the Thames Estuary at risk of inundation.
The collapse of the glacier, which could start in decades, could flood major cities such as New York and Sydney.
Parts of New Orleans, Houston and Miami in the southern United States will also be particularly affected.
A 2014 study by the Union of Concerned Scientists looked at 52 indicators of sea level in communities across the United States.
It found that tidal flooding will increase significantly in many East Coast and Gulf Coast locations, based on a conservative estimate of projected sea level increases based on current data.
The results showed that most of these communities will experience a sharp increase in the number and severity of tidal flood events over the coming decades.
By 2030, more than half of the 52 communities studied are expected to experience, on average, at least 24 tidal floods annually in exposed areas, assuming forecasts of moderate sea level rise. Twenty of these communities could experience a tripling or more in tidal flood events.
The mid-Atlantic coast is expected to see some of the largest increases in flood frequency. Places like Annapolis, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. can expect more than 150 tidal floods annually, and several locations in New Jersey may experience 80 or more tidal floods.
In the United Kingdom, a rise of 2 meters (6.5 feet) by 2040 will almost completely submerge large parts of Kent, according to research findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in November 2016.
Areas on the south coast such as Portsmouth, Cambridge and Peterborough will also be severely affected.
Cities and towns around the Humber Estuary, such as Hull, Scunthorpe and Grimsby will also experience severe flooding.