In a recent paper published in The Cryosphere, UK scientists found that the planet is losing ice at a record rate, with the speed of loss increasing by 57% since the 1990s. According to the study, such global ice melt poses significant environmental consequences, including elevated sea levels, imperilled natural habitats, and coastal flooding.
According to the study, this accelerated rate is due to the losses from mountain glaciers, Antarctica, Greenland, and Antarctic ice shelves. Most of the ice loss was caused by rising atmospheric temperatures, with the rest of the loss caused by rising ocean temperatures.
“Although every region we studied lost ice, losses from the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have accelerated the most,” lead author Dr. Thomas Slater said in a University of Leeds press release. Slater conducted the survey with researchers from the University of Edinburgh and University College London.
“The ice sheets are now following the worst-case climate warming scenarios set out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” he added. “Sea-level rise on this scale will have very serious impacts on coastal communities this century.”
In the first study of its kind, the researchers combined satellite observations with numerical models to discover that Earth lost 28 trillion tonnes of ice between 1994 and 2017, which is equivalent to “a sheet of ice 100 metres thick covering the whole of the UK.”
The survey encompassed 215,000 mountain glaciers, polar ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, ice shelves floating around Antarctica, and sea ice drifting in the Arctic and Southern Oceans.
According to co-author Dr. Isobel Lawrence, sea ice loss does not directly contribute to rising sea levels, but it indirectly impacts.
“One of the key roles of Arctic sea ice is to reflect solar radiation back into space which helps keep the Arctic cool,” she said. “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 loss of ice mass is not only driving the melting of sea ice, but also of glaciers and ice sheets, which, according to Dr. Lawrence, causes sea levels to rise. Although glaciers store only 1% of the Earth’s total ice volume, they contribute nearly one quarter of the global ice losses over the period studied. Aside from the environmental implications of these findings, co-author Inès Otosaks observed that the rapid ice loss will have dire societal repercussions too.
“As well as contributing to global mean sea level rise, mountain glaciers are also critical as a freshwater resource for local communities,” said Dr. Otosaka.
Half of all the losses were from ice on land, which has raised global sea levels by 35 millimetres. Researchers estimated that about one million people living in low-lying locales are at risk of displacement for every centimetre of sea-level rise.
“The retreat of glaciers around the world is therefore of crucial importance at both local and global scales.”
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