West Antarctica’s Melting Ice and the Urgency of Climate Action

A recent study has revealed worrying news about the ice in West Antarctica. The ice is melting quickly due to the warm waters surrounding it. This melting is happening so fast that it cannot be stopped, even if we reduce carbon emissions. If all the ice melts, it could increase the global sea level by 5.3 meters, or 17.4 feet. This could be disastrous for millions of people living in vulnerable coastal cities worldwide, including in India.

Even if we try our best to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the water around West Antarctica will keep getting warmer. In fact, it will warm up three times faster than it did in the 20th century. This rapid warming will lead to even more melting of the ice in this region.

This concerning study, titled ‘Unavoidable future increase in West Antarctic ice shelf melting over the twenty-first century,’ was recently published in the journal Nature. The research was conducted by Kaitlin Naughten and Paul R. Holland from the British Antarctic Survey, along with Jan De Rydt from Northumbria University in the UK.

What’s an ice sheet?

An ice sheet is like a giant ice blanket that covers an area larger than Uttarakhand, which is more than 50,000 square kilometers. There are two really big ice sheets in the world: one in Greenland and another in Antarctica. Together, they hold about two-thirds of all the Earth’s fresh water.

When these ice sheets get bigger, they make the global sea level go down. But when they melt and get smaller, they make the global sea level go up. NASA explained this in a report.

Understanding How the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Melts

Have you ever wondered how the big ice sheets in West Antarctica melt away? Well, there are different ways this happens. One way is when the warm waters of the ocean melt the edges of these ice sheets, known as ice shelves. These ice shelves are like a buffer, keeping the glaciers on land stable. But if these shelves thin out or vanish, the glaciers behind them will start moving faster. This results in more ice flowing into the ocean, leading to a rise in sea levels. It’s important to note that ice shelves and ice sheets are not the same as sea ice, the floating ice you find in polar regions, which forms when seawater freezes.

Understanding How West Antarctic Ice Melts

Ever wondered why the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting? Well, there are different ways ice sheets melt. One way is when warm ocean waters melt ice shelves—these are the edges of an ice sheet that floats on the ocean.

According to Naughten, one of the authors of a recent study, ice shelves play a crucial role. They stabilize the glaciers on the land just behind them. If an ice shelf thins or disappears, these glaciers speed up, releasing more ice into the ocean, which in turn causes sea levels to rise. It’s important to note that ice shelves and ice sheets are not the same as sea ice. Sea ice is the floating ice you see in polar regions, formed when sea water freezes.

This same melting process is happening in West Antarctica, specifically in the Amundsen Sea, which is the main focus of Naughten’s study. Over the decades, the ice shelves in this region have been getting smaller, glaciers have been moving faster toward the ocean, and the ice sheet itself has been shrinking.

What the Study Discovered

The researchers looked into the Amundsen Sea to understand what’s happening there. They used a special computer model that shows how the area might warm up. This model looked at various situations, from a best-case scenario where we control global warming to a worst-case scenario where we don’t control the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and gas. They also considered natural events like El Niño.

Their findings are concerning. In all situations they explored, the Amundsen Sea is getting warmer, and the ice shelves are melting more. This is true for different situations until at least 2045. It’s not good news for the future of the Amundsen Sea.

Ocean Changes and Their Impact on Communities

In simpler terms, scientists are saying that when we look at how the ocean is getting warmer and the ice shelves are melting, it’s not that different if we compare it to a scenario where we use fossil fuels at a medium level. This is similar to what many countries are planning to do in the next few decades.

Why does this matter? Well, it’s likely going to make the sea level rise even more. And when that happens, it’s not good news for places near the ocean, like India. India has a lot of people living close to the sea, and they might face problems because of this rising sea. If these coastal communities can’t build defenses like walls to stop the water, the people might have to leave their homes and move somewhere else.

Is there any hope left?

Even though the news is not very good, it shouldn’t stop us from trying to lessen the effects of climate change. The study shows that the melting ice in West Antarctica is just one part of the rising sea levels, which is just one problem caused by climate change.

“We’ve come to a point where we can’t avoid some of the effects of climate change, especially losing a lot of ice in West Antarctica. But climate change isn’t just one thing; there are other problems we can still do something about, like preventing the loss of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet or reducing the intensity of heatwaves, droughts, and heavy rainfall,” says Naughten.

Source: The Indian Express

FAQs about West Antarctica’s Melting Ice

Q1: What is the main cause of the melting of the ice in West Antarctica mentioned in the study?

A1: The main cause of the melting of the ice in West Antarctica is the warm waters surrounding it, which are melting the edges of the ice shelves.

Q2: How much could the global sea level increase if all the ice in West Antarctica melts?

A2: If all the ice in West Antarctica melts, it could increase the global sea level by 5.3 meters, or 17.4 feet.

Q3: What role do ice shelves play in the melting process of West Antarctic ice sheets?

A3: Ice shelves stabilize glaciers on land. When they thin or disappear, glaciers speed up, releasing more ice into the ocean, leading to a rise in sea levels.

Q4: What did the researchers use to model the warming of the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica?

A4: The researchers used a special computer model to understand the warming of the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica. This model considered various scenarios, including different levels of fossil fuel use and natural events like El Niño.

Q5: Is there any hope to mitigate the effects of melting ice in West Antarctica and rising sea levels?

A5: While the melting ice in West Antarctica is a significant concern, there are still opportunities to mitigate other effects of climate change. Addressing issues such as preventing the loss of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet and reducing the intensity of heatwaves, droughts, and heavy rainfall can make a difference.

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