Two new studies show that the huge West Antarctic ice sheet has begun to collapse. Scientists who performed the research warn the massive retreat of ice is most likely unstoppable and could lead to a rise in sea level in excess of 10 feet, according to the Associated Press.
The two studies were released Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters. The New York Times reports the simultaneous publications are most troubling because they arrive at the same conclusion even though the studies relied on different methods for the research. Highlighting the urgency of the results, NASA held a telephone news conference Monday to discuss the two scientific papers.
Eric Rignot, a NASA glaciologist, told reporters during the news conference that warm ocean currents coupled with geographic anomalies has triggered a chain reaction of ice melt in the area and the degradation of the ice sheet is occurring faster than scientists had expected.
Rignot was part of the joint NASA-University of California study and described the melt as “past the point of no return” and said that it “appears unstoppable” according to a CNN story.
University of Washington glaciologist Ian Joughlin, the lead author of the second study, agreed.
"It does seem to be happening quickly," he said. "We really are witnessing the beginning stages.”
Rignot explained at the news conference that the ice sheet, comprised of six glaciers, sits in a bowl shaped depression and warm ocean water is causing ice at the rim of that bowl to thin and retreat. The problem is that beyond the rim there is no underwater mountain or geological formation to slow that melting process. As those six glaciers melt it will mean a rise in sea level of about four feet over the next two centuries, Rignot said.
That could destabilize other glaciers in the region leading to a sea level increase well beyond the initial four feet according to Joughlin.
“There’s no stabilization mechanism,” he said.
The scientists all agreed that the melt had little to do with rising air temperatures but blamed it on warm water currents that have changed as a result of a shift in strong air currents that encircle Antarctica. It is not completely clear what has caused that shift but scientists agree that human-induced global warming is most likely a significant factor.
Richard B. Alley, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved in the studies, said that efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should still be put into place even if the damage is seemingly irreversible.
“If we have indeed lit the fuse on West Antarctica, it’s very hard to imagine putting the fuse out,” Alley said. “But there’s a bunch more fuses, and there’s a bunch more matches, and we have a decision now: Do we light those?”