Collapse of large part of West Antarctic ice sheet now unstoppable.

NYT: “A large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart and its continued melting now appears to be unstoppable, two groups of scientists reported on Monday. If the findings hold up, they suggest that the melting could destabilize neighboring parts of the ice sheet and a rise in sea level of 10 feet or more may be unavoidable in coming centuries.”
“Global warming caused by the human-driven release of greenhouse gases has helped to destabilize the ice sheet, though other factors may also be involved, the scientists said.
The rise of the sea is likely to continue to be relatively slow for the rest of the 21st century, the scientists added, but in the more distant future it may accelerate markedly, potentially throwing society into crisis.
“This is really happening,” Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research, said in an interview. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
Two scientific papers released on Monday by the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters came to similar conclusions by different means. Both groups of scientists found that West Antarctic glaciers had retreated far enough to set off an inherent instability in the ice sheet, one that experts have feared for decades. NASA called a telephone news conference Monday to highlight the urgency of the findings.
….In one of the new papers, a team led by Eric Rignot, a glaciologist at the University of California, Irvine, used satellite and air measurements to document an accelerating retreat over the past several decades of six glaciers draining into the Amundsen Sea region. And with updated mapping of the terrain beneath the ice sheet, the team was able to rule out the presence of any mountains or hills significant enough to slow the retreat.
“Today we present observational evidence that a large sector of the West Antarctic ice sheet has gone into irreversible retreat,” Dr. Rignot said in the NASA news conference. “It has passed the point of no return.”
Those six glaciers alone could cause the ocean to rise four feet as they disappear, Dr. Rignot said, possibly within a couple of centuries. He added that their disappearance will most likely destabilize other sectors of the ice sheet, so the ultimate rise could be triple that.
A separate team led by Ian Joughin of the University of Washington studied one of the most important glaciers, Thwaites, using sophisticated computer modeling, coupled with recent measurements of the ice flow. That team also found that a slow-motion collapse had become inevitable. 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,” Dr. Joughin said. “There’s no stabilization mechanism.”
Scientists said the ice sheet was not melting because of warmer air temperatures, but rather because relatively warm water that occurs naturally in the depths of the ocean was being pulled to the surface by an intensification, over the past several decades, of the powerful winds that encircle Antarctica.
And while the cause of the stronger winds is somewhat unclear, many researchers consider human-induced global warming to be a significant factor. The winds help to isolate Antarctica and keep it cold at the surface, but as global warming proceeds, that means a sharper temperature difference between the Antarctic and the rest of the globe. That temperature difference provides further energy for the winds, which in turn stir up the ocean waters.
But the melting from both Greenland and Antarctica is expected to be far more important in the future. A United Nations scientific committee, theIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has warned that the global sea level could rise as much as three feet by the end of this century if stronger efforts are not made to control greenhouse gases. The new findings suggest the situation is likely to get far worse in subsequent centuries.
….“If we have indeed lit the fuse on West Antarctica, it’s very hard to imagine putting the fuse out,” Dr. 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?”
Eric Rignot of NASA in the Observer: “Last Monday, we hosted a Nasa conference on the state of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which, it could be said, provoked something of a reaction. “This Is What a Holy Shit Moment for Global Warming Looks Like,” ran a headline in Mother Jones magazine.
We announced that we had collected enough observations to conclude that the retreat of ice in the Amundsen sea sector of West Antarcticawas unstoppable, with major consequences – it will mean that sea levels will rise one metre worldwide. What’s more, its disappearance will likely trigger the collapse of the rest of the West Antarctic ice sheet, which comes with a sea level rise of between three and five metres. Such an event will displace millions of people worldwide.
Two centuries – if that is what it takes – may seem like a long time, but there is no red button to stop this process. Reversing the climate system to what it was in the 1970s seems unlikely; we can barely get a grip on emissions that have tripled since the Kyoto protocol, which was designed to hit reduction targets. Slowing down climate warming remains a good idea, however – the Antarctic system will at least take longer to get to this point.
The Amundsen sea sector is almost as big as France. Six glaciers drain it. The two largest ones are Pine Island glacier (30km wide) and Thwaites glacier (100km wide). They stretch over 500km.
….Things changed with the launch of the ERS-1 satellite which allowed glaciers in this part of antartica to be observed from space. In 1997, I found that the grounding line (where the glacier detaches from its bed and becomes afloat) of Pine Island glacier had retreated five kilometres in the space of four years, between 1992 and 1996. Stan Jacobs and Adrian Jenkins had found a year earlier that the glacier was bathing in unusually warm waters, which suggested the ocean had a major influence on the glacier. Duncan Wingham and others showed that the glacier was thinning. In 2001, I found that Thwaites glacier was retreating too .
At that point, the scientific community took a different look at the region. Work by the British Antarctic Survey, Nasa and Chile led to more detailed observations, a monitoring programme was initiated, instruments were placed on the ice, in the ocean and scientific results started to pile up from a variety of research programmes. From that point, we all sought to find out whether this was really happening. Now, two decades after this process started, we have witnessed glacier grounding lines retreat by kilometres every year, glaciers thinning by metres every year hundreds of kilometres inland, losing billions of tons of water annually, and speeding up several percent every year to the flanks of topographic divides.
….What this means is that we may be ultimately responsible for triggering the fast retreat of West Antarctica. This part of the continent was likely to retreat anyway, but we probably pushed it there faster. It remains difficult to put a timescale on it, because the computer models are not good enough yet, but it could be within a couple of centuries, as I noted. There is also a bigger picture than West Antarctica. The Amundsen sea sector is not the only vulnerable part of the continent. East Antarctica includes marine-based sectors that hold more ice. One of them, Totten glacier, holds the equivalent of seven metres of global sea level.
Controlling climate warming may ultimately make a difference not only about how fast West Antarctic ice will melt to sea, but also whether other parts of Antarctica will take their turn. Several “candidates” are lined up, and we seem to have figured a way to push them out of equilibrium even before warming of air temperature is strong enough to melt snow and ice at the surface.
Unabated climate warming of several degrees over the next century is likely to speed up the collapse of West Antarctica, but it could also trigger irreversible retreat of marine-based sectors of East Antarctica. Whether we should do something about it is simply a matter of common sense. And the time to act is now; Antarctica is not waiting for us.”