David L. Griffin
By Chris Mooney and Joby Warrick
For two decades, scientists have kept a close watch on a vast, icebound corner of West Antarctica that is undergoing a historic thaw. Climate experts have predicted that, centuries from now, the region’s mile-thick ice sheet could collapse and raise sea levels as much as 11 feet.
Now, new evidence is causing concern that the collapse could happen faster than anyone thought. New scientific studies this week have shed light on the speed and the mechanics of West Antarctic melting, documenting an acceleration that, if it continues, could have major effects on coastal cities worldwide.
Twin papers this week show that the rate of ice loss from West Antarctica is increasing — with the acceleration particularly pronounced in the past decade — and also why this is happening: Warmer ocean waters are pushing up from below and bathing the base of the ice sheet.
The findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting that the effects of climate change are outpacing scientific predictions, driven in part, scientists say, by soaring levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
It often has been speculated that West Antarctica may be the most unstable of the world’s great ice sheets, a group that also includes the still-larger Greenland and the massive East Antarctica. And research published in May suggested that for the oceanfront glaciers of West Antarctica, held in place by moorings at the seafloor, a point of no return already may have been reached.
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