What does it mean when two major studies this week tell us that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is “collapsing”?
It means that another critical tipping point has been passed – one that will add probably another 13 feet to sea levels around the world.
The term “collapse” doesn’t mean it’s immediate, like a house falling down. But it does mean it’s inevitable – that the transition to complete loss of the ice sheet has begun, and that even if we were to shut down all industrial civilization all over the world tomorrow, it would still be unstoppable.
As glaciologist Eric Rignot, lead author of one of the two studies, explained at a NASA news conference:
“Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat. It has passed the point of no return.”
What’s driving the collapse isn’t simply that the warming atmosphere; it’s that the warming climate is accelerating the winds of the Southern Ocean that roar around Antarctica. And those winds, in turn, are stirring up the warmer waters deep down, which are eroding six major glaciers of the western ice sheet from below. “A large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat. It has passed the point of no return.”
Ian Joughin, lead author of a second study that reached the same conclusion, explained that even if the warm water now eating away at the ice were to dissipate, it would be “too little, too late to stabilize the ice sheet. There’s no stabilization mechanism.”
And that’s just the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. There’s an East one, too. And there’s the Greenland Ice Sheet, which scientists say may be the next one to collapse.
The new studies show that it could take hundreds of years for a 13-foot rise in sea level to be complete. But the die is now cast. And the collapse of the ice sheets is just one of many climate change effects gathering into one overall perfect storm.
Bear in mind, too, that scientists don’t want to be called out as presenting anything less than watertight evidence for any predictions they make, so peer-reviewed climate studies err on the side of being conservative.
What does this mean to anyone living in coastal regions? Climate Central has an interactive map of the United States, showing how and where the dry land goes underwater per foot of sea level rise.
So, how are those who govern the nations of the world responding to this? You’d think it might be yet another major wake-up call.
But as usual, there’s no indication that it will be.