Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Antarctic ice sheet losing mass


A floating iceberg off the Antarctic Peninsula. Photo courtesy CU-Boulder National Snow and Ice Data Center.

University of Colorado at Boulder researchers have used data from a pair of NASA satellites orbiting Earth in tandem to determine that the Antarctic ice sheet, which harbors 90 percent of Earth’s ice, has lost significant mass in recent years.

The team used measurements taken with the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE, to conclude the Antarctic ice sheet is losing up to 36 cubic miles of ice, or 152 cubic kilometers, annually. By comparison, the city of Los Angeles uses about 1 cubic mile of fresh water annually.

"This is the first study to indicate the total mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet is in significant decline," said Isabella Velicogna of CU-Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, chief author of the new study that appears in the March 2 online issue of Science Express. The study was co-authored by CU-Boulder physics Professor John Wahr of CIRES, a joint campus institute of CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The estimated ice mass in Antarctica is equivalent to 0.4 millimeters of global sea rise annually, with a margin of error of 0.2 millimeters, according to the study. There are about 25 millimeters in an inch.

The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, completed in 2001, predicted the Antarctic ice sheet would gain mass in the 21st century due to increased precipitation in a warming climate. But the new study signals a reduction in the continent’s total ice mass, with the bulk of loss occurring in the West Antarctic ice sheet, said Velicogna.

Researchers used GRACE data to calculate the total ice mass in Antarctica between April 2002 and August 2005 for the study, said Velicogna, who also is affiliated with the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

"The overall balance of the Antarctic ice is dependent on regional changes in the interior and those in the coastal areas," said Velicogna. "The changes we are seeing are probably a good indicator of the changing climatic conditions there."

Launched in 2002 by NASA and Germany, the two GRACE satellites whip around Earth 16 times a day at an altitude of 310 miles, sensing subtle variations in Earth’s mass and gravitational pull. Separated by 137 miles at all times, the satellites measure changes in Earth’s gravity field caused by regional changes in the planet’s mass, including such things as ice sheets, oceans and water stored in the soil and in underground aquifers.

A change in gravity due to a pass over a portion of the Antarctic ice sheet, for example, imperceptibly tugs the lead satellite away from the trailing satellite, said Velicogna. A sensitive ranging system allows researchers to measure the distance of the two satellites down to as small as 1 micron -- about 1/50 the width of a human hair -- and to then calculate the ice mass in particular regions of the continent.

"The strength of GRACE is that we were able to assess the entire Antarctic region in one fell swoop to determine whether it was gaining or losing mass," said Wahr. While the CU researchers were able to differentiate between the East Antarctic ice sheet and West Antarctic ice sheet with GRACE, smaller, subtler changes occurring in coastal areas and even on individual glaciers are better measured with instruments like radar and altimeters, he said.

A study spearheaded by CIRES researchers at CU-Boulder and published in September 2004 concluded that glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula - which juts north from the West Antarctic ice sheet toward South America -- sped up dramatically following the collapse of Larsen B ice shelf in 2002. Ice shelves on the peninsula -- which has warmed by an average of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 60 years -- have decreased by more than 5,200 square miles in the past three decades.

As Earth’s fifth largest continent, Antarctica is twice as large as Australia and contains 70 percent of Earth’s fresh water resources. The ice sheet, which covers about 98 percent of the continent, has an average thickness of about 6,500 feet. Floating ice shelves constitute about 11 percent of the continent.

The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone - which is about eight times smaller in volume than the East Antarctic ice sheet -- would raise global sea levels by more than 20 feet, according to researchers from the British Antarctic Survey.

Isabella Velicogna | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Wandering greenhouse gas
16.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

nachricht Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System
14.03.2018 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

Im Focus: Surveying the Arctic: Tracking down carbon particles

Researchers embark on aerial campaign over Northeast Greenland

On 15 March, the AWI research aeroplane Polar 5 will depart for Greenland. Concentrating on the furthest northeast region of the island, an international team...

Im Focus: Unique Insights into the Antarctic Ice Shelf System

Data collected on ocean-ice interactions in the little-researched regions of the far south

The world’s second-largest ice shelf was the destination for a Polarstern expedition that ended in Punta Arenas, Chile on 14th March 2018. Oceanographers from...

Im Focus: ILA 2018: Laser alternative to hexavalent chromium coating

At the 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show from April 25–29, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT is showcasing extreme high-speed Laser Material Deposition (EHLA): A video documents how for metal components that are highly loaded, EHLA has already proved itself as an alternative to hard chrome plating, which is now allowed only under special conditions.

When the EU restricted the use of hexavalent chromium compounds to special applications requiring authorization, the move prompted a rethink in the surface...

Im Focus: Radar for navigation support from autonomous flying drones

At the ILA Berlin, hall 4, booth 202, Fraunhofer FHR will present two radar sensors for navigation support of drones. The sensors are valuable components in the implementation of autonomous flying drones: they function as obstacle detectors to prevent collisions. Radar sensors also operate reliably in restricted visibility, e.g. in foggy or dusty conditions. Due to their ability to measure distances with high precision, the radar sensors can also be used as altimeters when other sources of information such as barometers or GPS are not available or cannot operate optimally.

Drones play an increasingly important role in the area of logistics and services. Well-known logistic companies place great hope in these compact, aerial...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

International Virtual Reality Conference “IEEE VR 2018” comes to Reutlingen, Germany

08.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

Wandering greenhouse gas

16.03.2018 | Earth Sciences

'Frequency combs' ID chemicals within the mid-infrared spectral region

16.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

Biologists unravel another mystery of what makes DNA go 'loopy'

16.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>