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By Michael Bastasch
The New York Times is out with a three-part series on how scientists are racing “against time” to better understand Antarctica’s “unstoppable disintegration” due to man-made global warming.
Antarctica “may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration,” writes NYT reporter Justin Gillis. NYT sent a team to the South Pole with a group of researchers studying the Ross Ice Shelf, which is larger than California.
Gillis paints a dismal picture of global warming’s impacts on the South Pole: “A rapid disintegration of Antarctica might, in the worst case, cause the sea to rise so fast that tens of millions of coastal refugees would have to flee inland, potentially straining societies to the breaking point.”
Scientists worry about some instability in Antarctica’s western ice sheet, and many have sounded the alarm of an imminent collapse of that portion of the South Pole.
“Climate scientists used to regard that scenario as fit only for Hollywood disaster scripts. But these days, they cannot rule it out with any great confidence,” Gillis wrote.
The Ross Ice Shelf is mostly below sea level, meaning it’s vulnerable to ocean warming. Though Gillis admits in his piece the ice shelf “seems stable now,” adding that “computer forecasts suggest that it might be vulnerable to rapid collapse in the next few decades.”
In fact, eight paragraphs in Gillis admits there’s a “frustrating lack of information” when it comes to Antarctic ice sheets. Ten paragraphs into the story, Gillis writes that the computer forecasts he mentioned earlier “were described as crude even by the researchers who created them.”
Those computer forecasts suggest human greenhouse gas emissions could cause “parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century,” Gillis wrote.
“We could be decades too fast, or decades too slow,” Robert DeConto, a scientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, told NYT. “There are still some really big question marks about the trajectory of future climate around Antarctica.”
Indeed, there are “big question marks” about Antarctica’s future regarding global warming.
There are few signs of global warming in the South Pole. For example, climate models predicted sea ice in the region would shrink as the Earth warmed, but, instead, sea ice expanded to record levels in 2014.
A 2015 study by NASA found Antarctica’s ice sheet increased in mass from 1992 to 2008. The study found ice gains in Eastern antarctica more than offset ice loss from melting glaciers in the west, the controversial NASA study found.
Months later, British Antarctic Survey scientists found a “pause” in warming on the Antarctic Peninsula due to a recovering ozone hole and shifting wind patterns.
“The ozone hole contributed to a warming of the Antarctic Peninsula, but has given a small cooling around the rest of the Antarctic,” said John Turner, a variability climatologist with the British Antarctic Survey.
That’s not all.
Recent evidence suggests Antarctic Peninsula has actually undergone a cooling trend since the late 1990s. Scientists found the region “has shifted from a warming trend of 0.32 °C/decade during 1979–1997 to a cooling trend of − 0.47 °C/decade during 1999–2014.”
“This recent cooling has already impacted the cryosphere in the northern [Antarctic Peninsula], including slow-down of glacier recession, a shift to surface mass gains of the peripheral glacier and a thinning of the active layer of permafrost in northern [Antarctic Peninsula] islands,” scientists wrote in their study, published in late August.