By Sarah Cooper-Lesadd

Research Analyst,

While there remains little scientific doubt that diminishing Antarctic glaciers represents one of the most significant threats that humanity faces today, the rate of ice loss in this region, has taken scientists by surprise. Current estimates predict sea level rises could contribute somewhere between about three to 16 inches to the world’s oceans which would prove devastating for low lying coastal regions including in our own overseas territories. Last week marked the arrival of World Penguin Day, however many were left commiserating as millions of penguins were killed of Halley Bay in the British Antarctic Territory. Few would deny the ice is rapidly disappearing and this only brings forth more evidence of the reality we are forced to face as ice sheets rapidly melt at record rates. As we await an uncertain future, there are several key questions that scientists and governments have struggled to answer and remain essential to halting rapid sea level rises.

Firstly, how many years do we have before all the glaciers retreat and how long before we are faced with an ever-worsening climate? While there is no consensus and different estimates vary, what is startling is that the world’s largest sea ice shelf is melting ten times faster due to the solar heating of the surrounding Antarctica Ocean. With the ice melting much more rapidly than previously thought owing to ever increasing volumes of in-flowing warm water surrounds the continent, recent research shows that from 1979 to 2019 the rate of decline is estimated at 16,100 square miles per year. It is not inconceivable that by 2070 we could start to see the rapid loss of ice sheets and it won’t be long before all our generation becomes the first to witness an entire continent, Antarctica without ice. If the world continues to burn greenhouse gases unabated, in the worst-case scenario, it is very possible that the two ice sheets will add about 10 inches to the world’s oceans by 2100. This leads us onto our next line of inquiry… if the worst should happen, where does leave us?

It is without doubt that the water from the entire continent melting will push up sea levels across the world far beyond even conservative levels of between 18-59m. With the threat becoming more real, this has prompted even the International Panel on Climate Change to revise up their projections with new estimates putting sea level rise between 28cm and 98cm by 2100, depending on the amount of carbon dioxide emitted. If there are no restrictions on emissions by the year 2300, sea levels will be from 1 metre to more than 3 metres higher, which would submerge low lying islands and most island states. This puts our own nations at heightened risk, and we have already started to witness the first signs of a changing climate on our environment after scientists found a worrying crack developing in the ice sheet under the British Antarctic Survey research station, forcing scientists to abandon their research station in winter 2017. The Halley VI Research station sits on a floating ice shelf with 88 people working on the station including summer only staff working on a relocation project with 16 scheduled to work over winter.

With the loss of shelf ice, there is no doubt that Antarctica is under immense pressure and particularly vulnerable, is the Western part of the continent. The world’s largest sea ice shelf is melting 10 times faster than expected due to solar heating of the surrounding Ocean. Sea ice growth during March 2019 has been greatest in the central Ross Sea and the north eastern Weddell Seas, with significant ice retreat continuing in the southern Bellingshausen Sea. Most starkly, the Ross Ice Shelf covers an area of roughly the size of France with 90 percent of the ice below sea level. The western section of Antarctica has already lost significant levels of ice and is likely to continue along that trajectory. As it becomes clearer to scientists and governments across the world the true rate and pace of climate change, much remains at stake. As we come head to head with the consequences of rising seas, melting ice caps and a resultant loss in biodiversity, it is more important than ever that solutions are found now and fast.