Global Ice Melt Matches Worst-Case Climate Scenario, Study Says

The first global ice-loss survey using satellite data showed ice is disappearing faster in Antarctica and Greenland. Global Ice Melt Matches Worst-Case Climate Scenario, Study Says

Melting on the ice sheets has accelerated so much over the past three decades that it’s now in line with the worst-case climate warming scenarios outlined by scientists.

A total of 28 trillion metric tons of ice was lost between 1994 and 2017, according to a research paper published in The Cryosphere on Monday. The research team led by the University of Leeds in the U.K. was the first to carry out a global survey of global ice loss using satellite data.

“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” lead author Thomas Slater said in a statement. “Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most.”

Ice melt from sheets and glaciers contributes to global warming and indirectly influences sea level rise, which in turn increases the risk of flooding in coastal communities. Earth’s northern and southern poles are warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet. In 2020, a year of record heat, Arctic sea ice extent hovered around the lowest ever for most of the year.

The new research, which used information from the European Space Agency’s network of satellites, found that Earth lost 1.3 trillion tons of ice in 2017, accelerating from 0.8 trillion metric tons per year in the 1990s.

The ice lost is equivalent to a 100-meter-thick sheet of ice able to cover the whole of the U.K. Another way to think of it is as 28 giant ice cubes —one for every trillion metric tons of ice lost—each taller than Mount Everest and measuring 10 kilometers in width, height and depth, the scientists said.

“One of the key roles of Arctic sea ice is to reflect solar radiation back into space, which helps keep the Arctic cool,” said Isobel Lawrence, a researcher at the Leeds’ Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling. “As the sea ice shrinks, more solar energy is being absorbed by the oceans and atmosphere, causing the Arctic to warm faster than anywhere else on the planet.”

The survey, which also analyzed 215,000 mountain glaciers around the planet, concluded that half of the losses were from ice on land, including from mountain glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet. These losses have raised global sea levels by an estimated 35 millimeters.

From Antarctica to the Arctic, the world’s ice is melting faster than ever, according to a new global satellite survey that calculated the amount of ice lost from a generation of rising temperatures.

Between 1994 and 2017, the Earth lost 28 trillion metric tons of ice, the survey showed. That is an amount roughly equivalent to a sheet of ice 100 meters thick covering the state of Michigan or the entire U.K.—and the meltwater from so much ice loss has raised the sea level just over an inch or so world-wide, the scientists said.

“It’s such a huge amount it’s hard to imagine it,” said Thomas Slater, a research fellow at the U.K.’s University of Leeds Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling and the lead author of a paper describing the new research. “Ice plays a crucial role in regulating the global climate, and losses will increase the frequency of extreme weather events such as flooding, fires, storm surges and heat waves.”

The paper was published Monday in the European Geophysical Union’s journal the Cryosphere.

Adding up the loss from glaciers, ice shelves, polar ice caps and sea ice, Dr. Slater and his colleagues determined that the rate of global melting has accelerated 65% since the 1990s.

The ice loss has grown from 0.8 trillion tons a year to 1.3 trillion tons a year, driven by rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists said. Slightly more than half the ice loss occurred in the Northern Hemisphere.

Dr. Slater and a team of eight other scientists from the University of Edinburgh, University College London and a Edinburgh-based climate data company called Earth Wave Ltd. based their findings on 50 studies of ice loss, field measurements and data from 17 satellite missions.

The researchers employed a variety of techniques to reach their conclusions. These included the use of satellite altimeters and gravity sensors to measure the volume and mass of ice on the ground below. They also used satellite imagery of ice shelves and glaciers to detect changes over the years.

“It’s a reminder that dangerous climate change is already here, in this case in the form of melting ice, rising sea level and the inundation of our coastlines,” said Michael Mann, a Pennsylvania State University climatologist and author of “The New Climate War.” He wasn’t involved in the research.

The new research comes as the U.S. moved last week to rejoin the Paris Agreement, an international climate accord designed to limit greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 and keep the rise in global temperature to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius), compared with preindustrial levels.

Former President Trump officially withdrew from the accord last year after vowing to do so for several years.

The average global temperature has risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s, when systematic record-keeping began, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Last week, NASA and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service announced that Earth’s average global surface temperature in 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record.

Independent studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a private climate-analysis group called Berkeley Earth found that 2020 was slightly colder than 2016 but warmer than every other year since 1850.

All told, the past seven years have been the warmest in the modern record, according to NASA.

“It’s important that we keep up with the big picture for ice because the story there is very dramatic, despite the possibility that one glacier here or there might be doing something different,” said climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

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