Mar 25, 2019 | Updated: 02:07 PM EDT

Dwindling Ice in Antarctica Spurs Questions Over Climate Change and The Point of No Return

Dec 06, 2014 09:20 PM EST

Glacier in West Antarctica

As impending threats of "climate change" and "ecological disaster" have loomed over international affairs this year, to the point that even the United Nations spearheaded a campaign and led a summit to discuss future changes that may amend for some of humanity's grave mistakes, new research published this week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters looks to a place much colder than our metropolises for evidence of a rapidly shifting climate.

Though by far one of the coldest locations on the face of our Earth, West Antarctica's Ice Sheet has seen many changes in the frozen surface in recent years, as incremental climate change creates collapsing walls of ice nearing an irreversible point of retreat. Earlier this year, research offered by Antarctic researchers indicated that the melting ice may be approaching a critical point of no return, that could devastate marine systems and coastal communities globally in as little as 200 years. And new research released this week from the University of California, Irvine suggests that the melting rate of glaciers in West Antarctica has more than tripled in the last decade alone.

"The mass loss of these glaciers is increasing at an amazing rate" lead researcher of the study, and scientist for joint UC Irvine and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Isabella Velicogna says.

A culmination of a comprehensive analysis of over 21 years of data collected by NASA's Operation IceBridge research flights, the study investigated the shifting dynamics of the Antarctic's ice sheet and found that glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment of West Antarctica are hemorrhaging ice far faster than water can freeze in other regions of the continent. Contributing significantly to the diminishing ice mass of Antarctica, climate change and increasing surface temperatures of the Earth attributed to the greenhouse effect researchers say are pushing the continent towards a "point of no return".

"Previous studies had suggested that this region started to change very dramatically since the 1990s, and we wanted to see how all the different techniques [in measuring this] compared" co-author of the study and doctoral candidate from UC Irvine, Tyler Sutterley says. "The remarkable agreement among the techniques gave us confidence that we are getting this right."

So what does the data indicate, and how much ice are we talking about losing every year at the icy south pole? By combining four data sets, and calculating the quickly shifting Antarctic ice levels via several methods, the researchers in collaboration with NASA found that Antarctica is losing on average 91.5 billion U.S. Tons a year of ice - which roughly equates to the loss of a Mount Everest chunk of ice every two years for the past 21 years.

Velicogna and her colleagues will continue to investigate the shifting ice sheet as part of NASA's Operation IceBridge, however warns the public that while the change may seem gradual as slow-moving ice, the repercussions of climate change and the dwindling glaciers will undoubtedly create problems for the Earth in the near future if the changing climate cannot be changed.

"We [are glad that we now] have an excellent observing network in place" Velicogna says. "It's critical that we maintain this network to continue monitoring the changes because the changes are proceeding very fast."

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