The Antarctic ice sheet hits the fan

The global warming Deniers (and the rest of us) just can’t catch a break: Vast areas of the Antarctic ice sheet — which has 10 times as much ice as Greenland — is losing mass much faster than anyone expected. And the rate of ice loss has quickened in the last decade. In fact, 2007’s ice loss was 75% higher than 2006’s.

Jeez, it’s almost like … I don’t know … the whole friggin’ planet is melting, and we are to blame! If only we had a group of scientists who would, like, report regularly on the impending catastrophe and explain to us how to avoid it….


As the Washington Post reports:

“Without doubt, Antarctica as a whole is now losing ice yearly, and each year it’s losing more,” said Eric Rignot, lead author of a paper published online in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Note to the Washington Post — one of the many, many reasons traditional media are losing eyeballs to the blogosphere is that your embedded hyperlinks go bizarre places, rather than to, say, the study you are citing!

Here is the link to Nature‘s story on the article (note to Nature — uhh, you folks could include a link to the actual study, too). And here, finally, is the link to the article, “Recent Antarctic ice mass loss from radar interferometry and regional climate modelling” by Eric Rignot et al. A subscription is required for the whole article, but the abstract is available:

Large uncertainties remain in the current and future contribution to sea level rise from Antarctica. Climate warming may increase snowfall in the continent’s interior, but enhance glacier discharge at the coast where warmer air and ocean temperatures erode the buttressing ice shelves. Here, we use satellite interferometric synthetic-aperture radar observations from 1992 to 2006 covering 85% of Antarctica’s coastline to estimate the total mass flux into the ocean. We compare the mass fluxes from large drainage basin units with interior snow accumulation calculated from a regional atmospheric climate model for 1980 to 2004. In East Antarctica, small glacier losses in Wilkes Land and glacier gains at the mouths of the Filchner and Ross ice shelves combine to a near-zero loss of 4 +/- 61 Gt yr-1. In West Antarctica, widespread losses along the Bellingshausen and Amundsen seas increased the ice sheet loss by 59% in 10 years to reach 132 +/- 60 Gt yr-1 in 2006. In the Peninsula, losses increased by 140% to reach 60 +/- 46 Gt yr-1 in 2006. Losses are concentrated along narrow channels occupied by outlet glaciers and are caused by ongoing and past glacier acceleration. Changes in glacier flow therefore have a significant, if not dominant impact on ice sheet mass balance.

Just for the record, the loss of Greenland’s ice sheet by itself could raise sea levels 20 feet. The West Antarctic ice sheet would add another 20 feet. How fast could it all happen? Pretty darn fast, just going by the last interglacial.

Anybody out there who still believes business-as-usual energy use won’t result in multi-multi-meter sea level?

The time to act is now. If not sooner.

[Yes, my headline looks at first to be a semi-mixed metaphor. Then again, the way the ice is getting chewed up by global warming, maybe not.]


26 Responses to The Antarctic ice sheet hits the fan

  1. Lou Grinzo says:

    The status of Antarctica has quickly become the next line of battle in the infowar between the deniers/delayers and those of us in the reality-based community. My Google alert for “antarctica ice sheet” has turned up hits for weeks from people claiming that the world isn’t really warming because the polar melting is confined to the Arctic.

    Another study showing similar numbers is by Scott Luthcke, et al, of NASA:

  2. Sorghum Crow says:

    Great headline, mixed metaphor or not.

    I’ve posted a few things on my blog and attracted a troll whose meme seems to be that global warming is great and will spread much needed fresh water far and wide. Oh yes and Greenland will become the world’s breadbasket.
    Oy veh.

  3. trucker says:

    Perhaps someone should point out to said troll that much of the interior of Greenland is below current sea level. I read somewhere it’s in the order of 300 ft or so…

  4. paul m says:

    …Anybody out there who still believes business-as-usual energy use won’t result in multi-multi-meter sea level?…

    I think there are more and more of us coming to the realization that we are going to get multi-multi-meter sea level now regardless of what is done (unless we come up with some miracle solution (or God intervenes) soon).

    However, there really is no alternative but to try to reduce the warming trend as best we can. Good luck (wo)mankind!

  5. trucker says:

    I should have said the interior BELOW the current ice fields…

  6. Paul says:

    This is a great post, but not much cause for optimism. At this point, it really seems like mass political action is the only solution.

  7. Somerset Bob says:

    Good write-up. I blogged about this too, in “Antarctic Ice Loss Confirmed” (click my name to view the post). Glad to see I’m not the only one who picked up on it! :)

  8. Jim B says:

    Did anyone see the massive error in the paper.

    1. “radar observations from 1992 to 2006 covering 85% of Antarctica’s coastline” – they DID NOT measure any the central mass of Antarctica even though another recent study in 2005 did measure the the center and DID find increasing ice mass – Davis, C. H., et al., 2005. Snowfall-driven growth in East Antarctic ice sheet mitigates recent sea-level rise.

    2. “In East Antarctica, small glacier losses in Wilkes Land and glacier gains at the mouths of the Filchner and Ross ice shelves combine to a near-zero loss of 4 +/- 61 Gt yr-1. ” – Filchner and Ross ice shelves are in WEST Antarctica not the east.

    3. the actual study never states – “And the rate of ice loss has quickened in the last decade. In fact, 2007’s ice loss was 75% higher than 2006’s.”

    Your story and all the stories like it are all a giant circle off one story that was wrong. The paper itself has serious error as noted above, and should never have made it through peer review. And you should either point out the obvious errors remove the article.

  9. Joe says:

    Actually, “East” Antarctica is most of Antarctica, and West Antarctica is bounded by “by the Transantarctic Mountains. This major mountain range extends from the eastern margin of the Ross Ice Shelf almost to the Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf.”

    I doubt the leading glaciologists in the world are mistaken.

  10. Peter Foley says:

    Here is just a little back of the envelope math for your entertainment and relaxation. 2133 meters of ice x 14million million square meters = 2.9862×10 to the 16th tons of ice divided by the annual loss of 1.96×10 to the 11th tons/year (+/-1.62×10 to the 11th) = 152000 years of melting. Huh. I’m selling that Condo on the Keys now before the rush. But wait it is snowing in Antarctica, 0.165 meters (rain equivalent) x14 million million square meters =2.31 x 10 to the 12th tons of new ice every year. That is about twelve times the annual loss. Huh again—the ice is adding up? No need to even go into the errors and omission regarding the sea level math and rates.

  11. Peter Foley says:

    Oops, that was only 15200 years, not 152000 years.

  12. Bob. says:

    Everything I am reading has the arctic refreezing at record rates this year. we have reached levels of expansion not reached in years for arctic ice. Ice grew at a record breaking 58,000 miles a day. Did we turn the couner.. because we seem to be cooling now.

  13. Bob. says:

    One more NEWWEEK story from 1975.
    Saying government acting too slow to solve coming ice age.

    Climatologists are pessimistic that political leaders will take any positive action to compensate for the climatic change, or even to allay its effects. They concede that some of the more spectacular solutions proposed, such as melting the Arctic ice cap by covering it with black soot or diverting arctic rivers, might create problems far greater than those they solve. But the scientists see few signs that government leaders anywhere are even prepared to take the simple measures of stockpiling food or of introducing the variables of climatic uncertainty into economic projections of future food supplies. The longer the planners delay, the more difficult will they find it to cope with climatic change once the results become grim reality.

  14. Peter Foley says:

    Hey, Any AGW supporters want to defend this very questionable data as proof the world is warming at a heretofore unheard of rate? Anyone?

  15. Joe says:

    What questionable data?
    All the solid data backs AGW. Read the IPCC reports.
    We are warming faster than expected. Not sure what the heck you are talking about.

  16. Peter Foley says:

    Joe, did you read my post? The ice is building up according to the data presented–by a factor of ~12 to 1. You are a victim of your selective filtering of reality–you see the edges of the Antarctic ice melting into the oceans but ignore the snowfall over 14 million square miles. I’ ve read how the the temperature grid(IPCC) used for the oceans and the Southern hemisphere are mostly guesstimates and WAGs (wild #$s guesses)pre- satellite era. If the historical data are even off by one sixth of one percent( 0.5degrees Celsius) the alleged temperature change returns to interglacial normal rate of warming. On the maps and models used I’m trying to find out if they distort the arctic areas as they are shown as Mercator projections that exaggerate the areas of the poles. Are the climate-computer models as poorly rendered? Its okay to be wrong when you’re not reaching into my wallet or limiting my economic future with the latest version of a tulip bulb mania. The present version of reality being pushed by the AGW group needs to be thoroughly proven before we lower the global economy’s rate of growth by over one percent for the next two generations dooming billions to extra years of poverty. Everyone naturally would like to be the center of attention–even climatologists. Without the threat of GW they are just another tribe of underfunded scientists.

  17. Joe says:

    Peter — what can I say? You are making up numbers that have no connection to reality

  18. Peter Foley says:

    Joe, Which number is made up? I got the amount of annual rainfall off an Antarctic website, the rest are extracted from your post above. The area of the Continent is ~14 million Square Kilometers, ice at 2 klicks thick, teach me. You posted the amount of water leaving the Antarctic, but selectively forgot to add the annual snowfall to the other side of the equation–which is 12X the loss. Thus I arrived at an answer closer to the truth then the chicken little “the ice is melting, the ice is melting” I hope you have started to work on your post AGW career resume–you will want to beat the rush to leave the sinking ship before all the life boats are gone. But seriously let us have some balance on the portrayal of the facts–if AGW is actually happening you should not have to spin the reality of natural events.

    Do you have any knowledge regarding my questioning the use of Mercator projection distorting models and peoples perceptions?
    Is anything I stated about the flimsy data pre satellite era regarding the temperature grid incorrect?
    Obviously I’ m on the other side of the aisle when it comes to political issues (Most people that work for government naturally think more government is better–People that pay for government treat it like the weed it is and constantly fight to reduce it), but we ought to be able to come to the same conclusion from the same set of complete science facts.
    Face it you missed the mark on the rate of ice gain(loss) of Antarctica. Just how did those 200000 year old ice cores make through the last warm period? I expect more rigor from a MIT grad with a doctorate in Physics. Again I welcome any correction of fact, method, or any other relevant area, but no dogma please.

  19. Bob says:

    Well for the warming period we just finished we were losing ice every we appear to be in a cooling cycle and ice should grow every year.

  20. Peter Foley says:

    I been reviewing the IPCC models and it appears the the model uses a 5 degree by 5 degree data(datum)? grid– thus it is over representing the arctic and temperate regions grossly– a little spherical trigonometry would provide a correction factor. For example the North pole and South pole would actually cover O square units and the 85 degree grid points would be ~17%? of the area represented by a equatorial grid area.
    I hope the model isn’t this crude–I expect more from a world changing work.

  21. ober-statistiker says:

    Something for both sides. Confusius say, “never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig”.

    Is is very entertaining reading the “sound science” comments critiqing the science of global warming. Our president would certainly agree. Good to have such scientific expertise weigh in on your side, Bob and Peter.

  22. KuhnKat says:

    Y’all ARE aware that the THICKNESS of both the Greenland and Antarctica ice has been increasing approximately balancing the losses at the edges??


  23. MediaMangler says:

    True. check out.
    many scientists don’t consider ice breaking off as evidence of global warming, but rather the ice thickness. Which is INCREASING. How does that link to CO2?
    Guess the terrorist aren’t dpoing a good enough job of scaring the american public. Maybe they’ll be afraid of some ice!!

  24. Brewster says:


    I do believe that you’re right that the interior of Greenland under the ice is 300 feet below sea level…

    That scares the H*** out of me, because I read quite a long time ago that the interior is being depressed by the weight of the ice on top.

    What will happen as the ice melts? Will the land not rise? The resultant earthquakes and increased ice flow downslope to the ocean could be disastrous, with Tsunamius and rapid sea level rise…

  25. Brian says:

    Here is a link for the complete article by Eric Rignot et al.

    The article discusses ice flux – or the rate of ice addition to ice subtraction. Some ice is added in the form of snowfall, while some ice is subtracted (usually at the edges). One must be careful when reading the article to understand precisely what is being discussed. The issue is not overall ice loss, it is the rate of ice flux.

    What Eric clearly says is that there is basically a zero flux in the eastern part of Antarctica (meaning that ice loss is balanced by ice addition.

    In western Antarctica, there is increasing ice flux due to increased acceleration of some of the glaciers.

    As Eric explains:

    “Mass losses in the Amundsen Sea and the northern Peninsula are caused by ongoing acceleration, not by a change in snowfall because snowfall increased in 1980–2004, especially in the Peninsula. Fast flow is explained by the ungrounding of glaciers owing to the thinning or collapse of their buttressing ice shelves6 or to a reduction in backforce resistance at the ice front as glacier fronts thin because of warmer air or warmer ocean temperatures.”

    But when you look at the global anomaly maps, it is clear that there is a local warming trend which would be the cause of mass loss in that portion of the Antarctic.

    But one cannot infer that all of Antarctica is going to melt. Indeed, Eric clearly states that there is no loss in east Antarctica, and there has been increased snow fall during the study period.

    Furthermore, it must be noted that 2007 was the highest level of Antarctic sea ice extent (almost 2,000,000 square miles above the mean)

    If one looks at the anomaly trend, the ice appears to be slightly *increasing* since about 1990.

    So, while there is increased ice loss in certain areas, there is also increased ice addition (through increased snowfall), and in some parts, no net ice loss at all.

    [JR: You are mixing apples [ice mass] with oranges [sea ice]. The article is quite clear — as is Rignot (and others) more recently — that Antarctica is losing significant net ice mass some 100 years faster than the climate models said they would.]