Melting ice sheets set to affect global temperatures drastically

Antarctica ice caps

Antarctica ice caps

Dr Tamsin Edwards, Lecturer in Physical Geography at King's College London, who led the work, explains: "Unstable ice-cliffs in Antarctica were proposed as a cause of unstoppable collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in the past".

"With this level of warming, a significant amount of melt water from the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets will enter Earth's oceans", Golledge said, adding this melt water will cause significant disruption to ocean currents and lead to more extreme weather events and greater year-to-year variation in temperatures.

"The weather these days is wild and will be wilder still within a century", reads the opening line of the news release from McGill University.

Ice melt from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will raise global sea levels by close to 10 inches by 2100, Golledge and colleagues report today in the journal Nature.

The findings were based on highly detailed simulations combined with satellite observations of changes to the ice sheets since 2010.

Professor Natalya Gomez, from the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at McGill contributed to the study by modelling projected changes to water levels around the globe as ice melts into the ocean.

Critically, melting ice flowing from land to sea would affect temperatures and circulation patterns in the world's oceans.

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By looking at ice losses three-million-years ago, 125,000 years ago, and over the last 25 years in more detail, the team show that unstable ice-cliff collapses aren't needed to reproduce sea level rises in the past.

"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". Meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet will slow the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), the system of ocean currents that drives the climate and controls the well-known Gulf Stream.

One likely result of weakened current in the Atlantic will be warmer air temperatures in the high Arctic, eastern Canada and central America, and cooler temperatures over northwestern Europe.

The scientists note that current policies that countries signed on to in the Paris Agreement do not take into account the full effects of ice sheet melt that will likely occur in the future.

Most studies on ice sheets have focused on how quickly they might shrink due to global warming, and how much global temperatures can rise before their disintegration - whether over centuries or millenia - becomes inevitable, a threshold known as a "tipping point". Our new experiments show that this will continue to some extent even if Earth's climate is stabilized.

The research was funded by NASA, New Zealand's Royal Society Te Aparangi, the Antarctic Research Centre, the New Zealand Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, and NSF Antarctic Glaciology Program.

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