By Shannon Hall
Our fate is tied to a frozen desert at the bottom of the world. Should Antarctica’s ice sheets dissolve, sea levels would rise dramatically—enough to flood the world’s great coastal megalopolises from New York to Shanghai and push millions of people inland. But determining just how the vast and frigid continent is currently responding to a warming world has been a challenge.
In West Antarctica the story is relatively clear. The floating platforms of ice that ring the coast are thinning, glaciers are surging toward the sea, meltwater is flowing across the surface, fast-growing moss is turning the once-shimmering landscape green and a massive crack threatens to cleave an iceberg the size of Delaware into the ocean. But in East Antarctica, where rising temperatures have caused increased humidity and thus more snowfall, the story takes an unexpected turn.
Most scientists agree that East Antarctica—unlike its western counterpart—is gaining mass in the form of snowfall, ice or both. But how much? And is it enough to counterbalance West Antarctica’s accelerating losses? A recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters by Alba Martin-Español from the University of Bristol and his colleagues suggests the gains in East Antarctica are so small that the continent is losing mass overall. This is just one in a long line of studies that disagree with rather controversial findings published in the Journal of Glaciology in 2015, which suggested that Antarctica is gaining mass. That study sparked a dizzying debate—but one that will ultimately help glaciologists grasp just what is happening in East Antarctica, and push scientists to consider how to handle contentious results in a warming world.
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