31 Mar 2016

'Drastic' Antarctic melt could double sea-level rise

7:30 pm on 31 March 2016

Global sea levels could rise by more than double the current best estimate, according to a new analysis of climate change in Antarctica.

An Iceberg in the Penola Strait, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica.

An iceberg in the Penola Strait, Antarctica Photo: AFP

The modelling assessment shows that Antarctic melting alone could contribute more than a metre to the sea level by the end of this century.

This would mean New Zealand's coastal waters would rise by 1.3m rather than the 59cm previously estimated.

More on this story

According to the study, published in Nature, by 2500, Antarctic melting could cause levels across the world to rise by 13m.

The authors said that rapid cuts in carbon emissions could limit this risk.

Competing ideas

In 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that, without any restrictions on carbon emissions, sea levels around the world would likely rise by up to 98cm by 2100.

However, the IPCC estimates contained a minimum contribution from Antarctica.

Other analyses since then have projected bigger increases, with a recent study suggesting that the oceans were rising faster than at any time in the past 2800 years and, by 2100, they could be up to 1.31m higher.

The exact level of Antarctica's impact on these projections has been vigorously debated. Late last year, a research paper suggested that projections of a contribution of a metre or more were not plausible.

But this new study argues that by 2100 the world could see 1.14m of sea-level rise from Antarctica alone.

Additions to the model

The scientists said their model was able to provide a more accurate prediction because it incorporated the impacts of some physical processes for the first time.

While other models have focussed on the impact of warmer waters melting the ice shelves from below, this new study also included the effect of surface meltwater and rain trickling down from above and fracturing supporting ice, hastening its slide to the sea.

The model also calculated the impact of the disintegration of floating ice shelves. If this happened, it would reveal walls of ice so tall that they could not support their own weight.

The scientists involved expected these extra factors would kick in over the coming decades, as warming from the atmosphere (not just from warmer waters below) became the dominant driver of ice loss.

"One reason that other models didn't include the atmospheric warming is because it hasn't started to happen just yet," said co-author Dr David Pollard from Penn State University, US.

"In Antarctica, around the edges at sea level, it's just beginning to get up to the melt point in summer.

"With that warming, the flanks of Antarctica will start to melt drastically in about 50 to 100 years - and then it will start to kick in according to our model."

The authors believed they had demonstrated the accuracy of the new model by correctly replicating sea-level rises in warm periods, millions of years into the past.

"Recently, we looked at the long-standing problem posed by geological evidence that suggests sea level rose dramatically in the past, possibly up to 10 to 20 metres around 3 million years ago, in the Pliocene," said Dr Pollard.

"Existing models couldn't simulate enough ice-sheet melting to explain that."

A data visualisation from NASA from January 2016 shows that 2015 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880.

A data visualisation from NASA shows that 2015 was the warmest year since modern record-keeping began in 1880. Photo: AFP/NASA Scientific Visualization Studio/Goddard Space Flight Center

'Right questions'

If the world continued to emit "business as usual" levels of carbon dioxide over the coming decades, the scientists argued that sea-level rise would be double what had already been estimated for the coming 100 years.

"If these processes do kick in and they end up being as important as we think that they could be, then they really do have a big impact," said Professor Robert DeConto from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

"West Antarctica is responding very soon in these simulations and that ends up having a big impact on North America in particular."

Other researchers have praised the development of the new model for including impacts such as surface meltwater and ice-cliff collapse, but they are uncertain about the conclusions.

"I have no doubt that on a century to millennia timescale, warming will make these processes significant in Antarctica, as well as Greenland, and drive a very significant Antarctic contribution to sea-level rise," Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey said.

"The big question for me is, how soon could this all begin, and could it be early enough to drive substantially higher sea levels by 2100?

"I'm not sure, but these guys are definitely asking the right questions."

The authors believed there was "good news" in their report. If global emissions of carbon were curtailed significantly then the extra factors that would substantially boost Antarctic melting could be avoided.

Seas would continue to rise, but not at the runaway rates suggested by their research paper.

-BBC

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs