West Antarctic Ice Sheet Begins Irreversible Retreat

Antarctica’s 5,000 foot average elevation is the highest of all the continents, and consisting almost entirely of ice, it accounts for 80% of the earth’s fresh water. So the recent discovery that one vast ice sheet, in Western Antarctica has not only begun melting, but has already reached a point of no return, is beyond scary.

Almost daily, we learn of new catastrophic results of climate change. But until we feel some human connection, it is nearly impossible to absorb, let alone internalize their significance. Following my own recent return from two weeks up close and personal passage amongst several hundred miles of the Antarctic Continent’s icy northwest coast, I simply can’t get this recent discovery out of my mind.

Screen Shot 2014-05-31 at 1.29.17 PMOn the southwest coast of Antarctica, there is a vast depression known as the Amundsen Sea, into which over the next several hundred years scientists have now concluded six enormous retreating glaciers will drain completely. In 2011 they discovered an 18 mile long, deep crack in the ice across one the six, the Pine Island Glacier; but even more alarming, they have since determined there are no underlying geologic formations, or ice shelves, to slow these retreating glacier rivers that increased four times in volume over 13 years, through 2007, with a another 8% increase just within the last 18 months; and as the ice stream steepens, the glacier’s central trunk has thinned by 75% from 1995 to 2006.

The complete melting of this ice sheet alone, which is approximately the size of the state of Nevada, will raise the earth’s sea level gradually for the remainder of the 21st century. But together with the inexorable continued climate warming that has now passed the tipping point, this ice field being drained by these six glaciers into the Amundsen Sea, will accelerate in the next century. The melting of just this ice sheet will by the end of the 22nd century raise the earth’s sea level at least 10 feet, and possibly as much as 20 feet!

To visualize what this means just for America’s coasts, I refer you to: www.climatecentral.org/news/u.s.-with-10-feet-of-sea-level-rise-17428

What is there to do? The die is cast. Although this chain of events won’t totally play out for several hundred years – the result is already inevitable…

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