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The Critical Concerns of Antarctica and Greenland

Nick Webb takes a closer look at the climate concerns surrounding Greenland and Antarctica.

Photo of Derek Oyen

On 6th February 2020, scientists recorded temperatures in Antarctica equalling those of Los Angeles on the same day: Esperanza Base, Eagle Island recorded the temperature of 18.4°C (64.9°F). This coincided with the island’s day of peak ice-melting: one inch in a single day, and four inches in the ensuing week.

Glaciologist at Nichols College, Mauri Pelto, who observed the event, said “I haven’t seen melt ponds develop this quickly in Antarctica”.

The extreme melt led to a loss of 20% of Eagle Island’s seasonal snow in a single event, the third such major melting of the 2020 Antarctic Winter.

Persistent warm weather such as this has not been widely seen in Antarctica in the 21st Century, to which NASA scientists assess that a number of weather conditions have combined to create abnormally high temperatures.

“If you think about this one event in February, it isn’t that significant,” said Pelto. “It’s more significant that these events are coming more frequently”.

Antarctica and Beyond

At the opposite end of the globe, Arctic temperatures in the summer of 2019 were high enough to trigger 600 billion tons of ice to melt in Greenland, leading to a 2.2mm increase in global sea levels. This significant melt from both poles has led to a total sea level rise of 17.8mm globally from 1992-2017. While that may not sound like a lot, it is a hugely worrying sign of the catastrophic effects of global warming.

The Ice Sheet Mass Balance Intercomparison Exercise (Imbie) has taken data from across both ice sheets which paints a picture of increased melting leading to greater sea-level rise. Measurements taken from 1901 showed annual sea-level rise to be at 1.7mm a year, whereas between 1992 and 2010 the increase stood at 3.2mm a year, with the organisation predicting that this figure is set to keep rising during further heatwaves in the coming years.

A Chilling Trend

Data by Imbie shows that polar ice loss has increased six-fold since the 1990s, with Andrew Shepherd, a professor of Earth Observation at the University of Leeds, stating that “this would mean 400 million people are at risk of annual coastal flooding by 2100. These are not unlikely events with small impacts; they are already underway and will be devastating for coastal communities.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that, due to the increase in melt from both ice caps, global sea level rise could be up to 53cm by 2100.

Lead author on the IPCC’s assessment report on the issue, Guðfinna Aðalgeirsdóttir, Professor of Glaciology at the University of Iceland, stated that Imbie’s satellite observations of the poles show that both melting and ice discharge from Greenland have increased since observations started.

While some scientists are sceptical about the long-lasting significance of these temperature increases, such as Alexandra Isern, head of Antarctic studies at the National Science Foundation, who has called them “weather events” as opposed to “climate events”. However, data collected from NASA satellites shows these are most likely not one-off events, but part of a more worrying trend of higher polar temperatures.

Scientists must now determine if these higher polar temperatures are anomalies, or hints at a concerning new weather pattern, in which case new policies to protect the world’s vulnerable ice sheets must be brought into place before they’re lost forever.

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