East Antarctica ice melt more vulnerable, catastrophic than thought

Scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) have published a study showing that global warming could have a catastrophic effect on parts of East Antarctica and lead to an unstoppable sea-level rise for thousands of years to come.

The Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica has enough ice to raise sea levels by 3 to 4 metres, according to the study published in the latest issue of Nature Climate Change. And that could happen if global warming were to melt the small rim of ice at the coast that currently holds the ice in place.

Lead author Matthias Mengel says the basin is “like a bottle on a slant” and refers to the rim of ice as a cork. “Once uncorked, it empties out”, he warns. And once lost, it would trigger long-term sea-level rise, which would be up to 80 times bigger the initial melting of the ice cork.

Although it would take five thousand to ten thousand years for complete ice discharge to occur, the scientists warn that once started, it would be irreversible and would continue until the whole basin is empty, even if climate warming stopped.

“This is the underlying issue here”, says Mengel. “By emitting more and more greenhouse gases we might trigger responses now that we may not be able to stop in the future.” Such extensive sea level rise would change the face of planet Earth with coastal cities such as Mumbai, Tokyo or New York at risk.


Photo credit: M. Martin/PIK

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