New research from the University of Reading contains a grim forecast: If global temperatures continue to rise and reach 4°C (7.2°F) above pre-industrial levels, more than one-third of the Antarctic’s ice shelf area could become at risk of collapsing into the sea. This could lead to an enormous amount of water flowing into the oceans.
“Ice shelves are important buffers preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise. When they collapse, it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea," said Dr Ella Gilbert, a research scientist in the University of Reading’s Department of Meteorology, in a statement.
With the use of state-of-the-art climate change modeling techniques, the findings published in Geophysical Research Letters provide extensive predictions to how continuous melting and water run-offs in the Antarctic influence ice shelf stability.
“We know that when melted ice accumulates on the surface of ice shelves, it can make them fracture and collapse spectacularly. Previous research has given us the bigger picture in terms of predicting Antarctic ice shelf decline, but our new study uses the latest modeling techniques to fill in the finer detail and provide more precise projections," Gilbert said.
“The findings highlight the importance of limiting global temperature increases as set out in the Paris Agreement if we are to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, including sea level rise.”
Gilbert and colleagues predict that 34 percent of the area of all Antarctic ice shelves, a region around half a million square kilometers (193,0511 square miles), could be at risk of destabilizing with a 4°C (7.2°F) increase in global temperature. If that rise is limited to 2°C (3.6 °F), it could halve the area potentially at risk and avoid a catastrophic amount of water flowing into the oceans. Both scenarios are currently possible this century, hence our need to address the climate crisis, and the importance of limiting the increase in temperatures remains vital.
The researchers identified the Larsen C ice shelf, Shackleton, Pine Island, and Wilkins ice shelves as being most at risk of collapse under a 4°C increase in global temperature.
“If temperatures continue to rise at current rates, we may lose more Antarctic ice shelves in the coming decades," Dr Gilbert concluded. “Limiting warming will not just be good for Antarctica – preserving ice shelves means less global sea level rise, and that’s good for us all.”