Record-breaking acceleration of ice loss throughout the planet worries scientists in a new study published on Monday. 


2013 Daily Arctic Sea Ice from AMSR2 May - September 2013
(Photo : NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio AMSR2 data courtesy of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA). / Wikimedia Common) A still image of the Arctic sea ice on September 12th, 2013 when the sea ice reached the annual minimum extent of 5.22 million square km.

The rapid rate of ice loss now coincides with the worst-case scenario drawn up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading global authority on climate.

Planet's Ice Imbalance

A paper published in The Cryosphere on Monday shows that Earth has lost roughly 28 trillion tonnes of ice since 1994. This is about 736 trillion tonnes from the Arctic sea ice, 6.1 trillion tonnes from mountain glaciers, and 6.5 trillion tonnes from ice shelves. 

According to the study, 3.2% of the excess energy absorbed by the planet due to climate warming has caused record-setting ice loss.

Thomas Slater, the lead author from the University of Leeds, warns that the consequences of the rapid ice loss will be felt throughout the globe. He says, "Sea level rise on this scale will have serious impacts on coastal communities this century."

Throughout the period studied, the rate of ice loss accelerated by 57%. Roughly half of the ice loss was from land, which directly contributed to the rise of global sea levels. Where the greatest amount of ice lost was from the floating ice in the polar regions, increasing the risks of albedo loss. 

The albedo effect is the feedback mechanism of white ice to reflect solar radiation back out to space. When floating sea ice melts and is covered by dark water, it absorbs more solar radiation speeding up warming.

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Isobel Lawrence, a fellow researcher, explains," sea ice loss doesn't contribute directly to sea-level rise but has an indirect influence. One of the key roles of Arctic sea ice is reflecting solar radiation back into space, which helps keep the Arctic cool."

"The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Sea-level rise on this scale will have serious impacts on coastal communities this century," says Slater.

Dr. Slater says the study is the first of its kind to analyze ice disappearing using satellite observations. He adds that over the past 3 decades, international efforts have been made to better understand the individual components of the planet's ice systems. Revolutionized by satellites, researchers are now able to routinely monitor the inhospitable regions where ice is found.

The survey covers 215,000 glacial mountains spread throughout the globe, the polar ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, ice shelves floating in Antarctica, and drifting sea ice in the Arctic and Southern oceans.

Ines Otosaka, a co-author of the study, says, "Mountain glaciers are critical as a freshwater resource for local communities." He adds that the retreat of glaciers can be seen as crucial for both local and global scales.

In a press release, the researchers stress that atmospheric temperature rises have been the main driver for Arctic sea ice decline, while the rise in ocean temperatures have increased the melting of Antarctic ice sheets.

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