Three years of observations show that the Antarctic ice sheet is now losing 159 billion tonnes of ice each year – twice as much as when it was last surveyed.
A team of scientists from the UK Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, led by researchers at the University of Leeds, have produced the first complete assessment of Antarctic ice sheet elevation change.
They used measurements collected by the European Space Agency's CryoSat-2 satellite mission, which carries an altimeter specially designed for this task. In sharp contrast to past altimeter missions, CryoSat-2 surveys virtually all the Antarctic continent, reaching to within 215 kilometres of the South Pole and leading to a fivefold increase in the sampling of coastal regions where today's ice losses are concentrated.
Overall, the pattern of imbalance continues to be dominated by glaciers thinning in the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica.
However, thanks to the improved capabilities of CryoSat-2, problem areas such as the rugged terrain of the Antarctic Peninsula can now also be surveyed.
On average West Antarctica lost 134 gigatonnes of ice, East Antarctica three gigatonnes, and the Antarctic Peninsula 23 gigatonnes in each year between 2010 and 2013 – a total loss of 159 gigatonnes each year.
The polar ice sheets are a major contributor to global sea level rise and, when combined, the Antarctic losses detected by CryoSat-2 are enough to raise global sea levels by 0.45 millimetres each year alone.
In West Antarctica, ice thinning has been detected in areas that were poorly surveyed by past satellite altimeter missions.
These newly-mapped areas contribute additional losses that bring altimeter observations closer to estimates based on other approaches.
But the average rate of ice thinning in West Antarctica has also increased, and this sector is now losing almost one third (31%) as much ice each year than it did during the five year period (2005-2010) prior to CryoSat-2's launch.
Lead author Dr Malcolm McMillan from the University of Leeds said: "We find that ice losses continue to be most pronounced along the fast-flowing ice streams of the Amundsen Sea sector, with thinning rates of between 4 and 8 metres per year near to the grounding lines of the Pine Island, Thwaites and Smith Glaciers."
This sector of Antarctica has long been identified as the most vulnerable to changes in climate and, according to recent assessments, its glaciers may have passed a point of irreversible retreat.
Launched in 2010, CryoSat carries a radar altimeter that can 'see' through clouds and in the dark, providing continuous measurements over areas like Antarctica that are prone to bad weather and long periods of darkness.
The radar can measure the surface height variation of ice in fine detail, allowing scientists to record changes in its volume with unprecedented accuracy.
Professor Andrew Shepherd, also of the University of Leeds, who led the study, said: "Thanks to its novel instrument design and to its near-polar orbit, CryoSat allows us to survey coastal and high-latitude regions of Antarctica that were beyond the capability of past altimeter missions, and it seems that these regions are crucial for determining the overall imbalance."
"Although we are fortunate to now have, in CryoSat-2, a routine capability to monitor the polar ice sheets, the increased thinning we have detected in West Antarctica is a worrying development. It adds concrete evidence that dramatic changes are underway in this part of our planet, which has enough ice to raise global sea levels by more than a metre. The challenge is to use this evidence to test and improve the predictive skill of climate models."
Professor David Vaughan of the British Antarctic Survey said: "The increasing contribution of Antarctica to sea-level rise is a global issue, and we need to use every technique available to understand where and how much ice is being lost. Through some very clever technical improvements, McMillan and his colleagues have produced the best maps of Antarctic ice-loss we have ever had. Prediction of the rate of future global sea-level rise must be begin with a thorough understanding of current changes in the ice sheets – this study puts us exactly where we need to be."
Dr Ian Joughin at the University of Washington, author of a recent study simulating future Antarctic ice sheet losses added: "This study does a nice job of revealing the strong thinning along the Amundsen Coast, which is consistent with theory and models indicating this region is in the early stages of collapse."
The findings from a team of UK researchers at the NERC Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling, are published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Professor Vaughan and Dr Joughin were not involved in the study.
Images related to this project are available at: http://homepages.see.leeds.ac.uk/~eeaeh/iSTAR_PIG_photos/
Professor Shepherd is available for interview.
Contact Chris Bunting, Senior Press Officer, University of Leeds Communications Office, phone +44 113 343 2049 or email email@example.com
The full paper: Malcolm McMillan, Andrew Shepherd et al. 'Increased ice losses from Antarctica detected by CryoSat-2', Geophysical Research Letters (2014), is online (DOI 10.1002/2014GL060111; URL http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GL060111/abstract). Copies of the article are available to members of the media from the University of Leeds press office .
Notes to editors
The University of Leeds is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse and the University's vision is to secure a place among the world's leading universities. http://www.leeds.ac.uk
Chris Bunting | Eurek Alert!
Rapid plankton growth in ocean seen as sign of carbon dioxide loading
27.11.2015 | Johns Hopkins University
Revealing glacier flow with animated satellite images
26.11.2015 | European Geosciences Union
Planet Earth experienced a global climate shift in the late 1980s on an unprecedented scale, fuelled by anthropogenic warming and a volcanic eruption, according to new research published this week.
Scientists say that a major step change, or ‘regime shift’, in the Earth’s biophysical systems, from the upper atmosphere to the depths of the ocean and from...
The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE has installed 70 photovoltaic modules on the outer façade of one of its lab buildings. The modules were...
Nerve cells cover their high energy demand with glucose and lactate. Scientists of the University of Zurich now provide new support for this. They show for the first time in the intact mouse brain evidence for an exchange of lactate between different brain cells. With this study they were able to confirm a 20-year old hypothesis.
In comparison to other organs, the human brain has the highest energy requirements. The supply of energy for nerve cells and the particular role of lactic acid...
In laser material processing, the simulation of processes has made great strides over the past few years. Today, the software can predict relatively well what will happen on the workpiece. Unfortunately, it is also highly complex and requires a lot of computing time. Thanks to clever simplification, experts from Fraunhofer ILT are now able to offer the first-ever simulation software that calculates processes in real time and also runs on tablet computers and smartphones. The fast software enables users to do without expensive experiments and to find optimum process parameters even more effectively.
Before now, the reliable simulation of laser processes was a job for experts. Armed with sophisticated software packages and after many hours on computer...
Researchers at Heidelberg University have devised a new way to study the phenomenon of magnetism. Using ultracold atoms at near absolute zero, they prepared a...
25.11.2015 | Event News
17.11.2015 | Event News
21.10.2015 | Event News
27.11.2015 | Press release
27.11.2015 | Life Sciences
27.11.2015 | Materials Sciences