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West Antarctic Ice Sheet: Melting rate will triple, even with climate action

Recent simulations conducted using the UK’s national supercomputer have provided concerning insights into the fate of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). The research suggests that substantial melting is inevitable, posing serious questions about our ability to control or adapt to the resulting sea level rise.

Inevitable melting

The scientists used the supercomputer to explore the ocean-driven melting patterns of the WAIS. Their goal was to discern how much melting is inevitable and what portion can still be influenced by managing greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite considering climate fluctuations such as El Niño, the results were alarming. They showed minimal difference between moderate emission scenarios and the ambitious targets set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. 

The study revealed that even if global temperature rise is restricted to the optimal target of 1.5°C, the rate of melting would be three times faster than that experienced in the 20th century.

Study implications

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is currently shedding ice at an alarming rate, standing as Antarctica’s primary contributor to rising sea levels. 

Past models have suggested that the Southern Ocean’s warming, especially in the Amundsen Sea region, is the driving force behind this phenomenon. 

If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, it would elevate the global sea level by as much as five meters. Such a rise would have dire consequences for the millions residing along coastlines worldwide. 

Time to prepare 

“It looks like we’ve lost control of melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If we wanted to preserve it in its historical state, we would have needed action on climate change decades ago,” said Dr. Kaitlin Naughten, a researcher at the British Antarctic Survey.

“The bright side is that by recognizing this situation in advance, the world will have more time to adapt to the sea level rise that’s coming. If you need to abandon or substantially re-engineer a coastal region, having 50 years lead time is going to make all the difference.”

Future projections 

Dr. Naughten’s team simulated several 21st-century scenarios. These projections either met the Paris Agreement’s targets or followed standard paths for medium to high carbon emissions.

A significant takeaway was the striking similarity in outcomes for the three lower-range emission scenarios. All of them anticipated a considerable warming of the Amundsen Sea, leading to increased ice-shelf melting. 

Although the worst-case scenario predicted even more melting, it was deemed unlikely since it assumes a rapid increase in emissions after 2045.

The path forward

While the study paints a somber picture, it does not negate the value of active mitigation against climate change impacts.

“We must not stop working to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. What we do now will help to slow the rate of sea level rise in the long term,” said Dr. Naughten.

“The slower the sea level changes, the easier it will be for governments and society to adapt to, even if it can’t be stopped.”

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