STUDY: Antarctica Is Heating Up Even Faster Than Previously Thought

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Dangerous climate-change induced melting of Antartica’s ice may be happening even faster than we think, as a new study has found that Antarctica is warming far more quickly than scientists had previously thought. The study, published in the journal Natural Geoscience, reviewed a previously spotty dataset on Antarctic temperature, correcting several gaps. The New York Times summarizes the results:

A paper released Sunday by the journal Nature Geoscience reports that the temperature at a research station in the middle of West Antarctica has warmed by 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1958. That is roughly twice as much as scientists previously thought and three times the overall rate of global warming, making central West Antarctica one of the fastest-warming regions on earth. …

But the temperature there does sometimes rise above freezing in the summer, and the new research raises the possibility that it might begin to happen more often, potentially weakening the ice sheet through surface melting. The ice sheet is already under attack at the edges by warmer ocean water, and scientists are on alert for any new threat.

A potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is one of the long-term hazards that have led experts to worry about global warming. The base of the ice sheet sits below sea level, in a configuration that makes it especially vulnerable. Scientists say a breakup of the ice sheet, over a period that would presumably last at least several hundred years, could raise global sea levels by 10 feet, possibly more.

Melting at this scale in West Antarctica, the focus of this study, could potentially be catastrophic: not only would it have “knock-on effects” on the larger East Antarctic Ice Sheet, but it could potentially speed up worldwide warming by releasing massive CO2 deposits trapped under Antarctica.

Sea-level rise is one of the most dangerous potential consequences of climate change. In some projections, it could “put hundreds coastal cities around the globe entirely under water.” One study found that the even the best case scenario would “hit low lying coastal areas housing one in ten humans on the planet hard.” Sea-level rise will also greatly exacerbate the damage done by megastorms like Sandy and Katrina, themselves already intensified by warmer ocean temperatures.