Sea level rise and melting polar ice sheets may not cause a climate catastrophe, but they will certainly change weather patterns unpredictably.
The global weather is about to get worse. The melting polar ice sheets will mean rainfall and windstorms could become more violent, and hot spells and ice storms could become more extreme.
This is because the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica are melting, to affect what were once stable ocean currents and airflow patterns around the globe.
Planetary surface temperatures could rise by 3°C or even 4°C by the end of the century. Global sea levels will rise in ways that would “enhance global temperature variability”, but this might not be as high as earlier studies have predicted. That is because the ice cliffs of Antarctica might not be so much at risk of disastrous collapse that would set the glaciers accelerating to the sea.
The latest revision of evidence from the melting ice sheets in two hemispheres – and there is plenty of evidence that melting is happening at ever greater rates – is based on two studies of what could happen to the world’s greatest reservoirs of frozen freshwater if nations pursue current policies, fossil fuel combustion continues to increase, and global average temperatures creep up to unprecedented levels.
“Even if we do include ice-cliff instability … the most likely contribution to sea level rise would be less than half a metre by 2100”
“Under current global government policies, we are heading towards 3 or 4 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels, causing a significant amount of melt water from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets to enter Earth’s oceans. According to our models, this melt water will cause significant disruptions to ocean currents and change levels of warming around the world,” said Nick Golledge, a south polar researcher at Victoria University, in New Zealand.
He and colleagues from Canada, the US, Germany and the UK report in Nature that they matched satellite observations of what is happening to the ice sheets with detailed simulations of the complex effects of melting over time, and according to the human response so far to warnings of climate change.
In Paris in 2015, leaders from 195 nations vowed to contain global warming to “well below” an average rise of 2°C by 2100. But promises have yet to become concerted and coherent action, and researchers warn that on present policies, a 3°C rise seems inevitable.
Sea levels have already risen by about 14 cms in the last century: the worst scenarios have proposed a devastating rise of 130 cms by 2100. The fastest increase in the rise of sea levels is likely to happen between 2065 and 2075.
Gulf Stream weakens
As warmer melt water gets into the North Atlantic, that major ocean current the Gulf Stream is likely to be weakened. Air temperatures are likely to rise over eastern Canada, central America and the high Arctic. Northwestern Europe – scientists have been warning of this for years – will become cooler.
In the Antarctic, a lens of warm fresh water will form over the surface, allowing uprising warm ocean water to spread and cause what could be further Antarctic melting.
But how bad this could be is re-examined in a second, companion paper in Nature. Tamsin Edwards, now at King’s College London, Dr Golledge and others took a fresh look at an old scare: that the vast cliffs of ice – some of them 100 metres above sea level – around the Antarctic could become unstable and collapse, accelerating the retreat of the ice behind them.
They used geophysical techniques to analyse dramatic episodes of ice loss that must have happened 3 million years ago and 125,000 years ago, and they went back to the present patterns of melt. These losses, in their calculations, did not cause unstoppable ice loss in the past, and may not affect the future much either.
Instability less important
“We’ve shown that ice-cliff instability doesn’t appear to be an essential mechanism in reproducing past sea level changes and so this suggests ‘the jury’s still out’ when it comes to including it in future predictions,” said Dr Edwards.
“Even if we do include ice-cliff instability, our more thorough assessment shows the most likely contribution to sea level rise would be less than half a metre by 2100.”
At worst, there is a one in 20 chance that enough of Antarctica’s glacial burden will melt to raise sea levels by 39 cms. More likely, both studies conclude, under high levels of greenhouse gas concentrations, south polar ice will only melt to raise sea levels worldwide by about 15 cms.
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