Assessing the state of Antarctica
Since 2002, Antarctica as a whole has been losing 24 cubic miles of ice each year, with ice loss tripling after 2012 (NASA, 2018). When the Larsen C ice shelf fractured and sent a chunk of ice twice the size of Luxembourg off into the Weddell Sea, it looked to most of us like an epic representation of the speed of Antarctic melting.
Some scientists, however, were quick to put us at ease regarding this specific calving event (which wasn’t, in fact, actually that remarkable in the context of climate change).
Whilst the Arctic struggles (with declining sea ice and its relation to the Earth’s albedo effect, to dwindling polar bear populations with sea-ice retreat), Antarctica, unfailingly steadfast and resolute by its nature, appears to be coping better.
However, to suggest that Antarctica isn’t feeling the effects of climate change would be misleading. Currently, West Antarctica is feeling the heat (literally) as warming oceans make its ice shelves increasingly unstable. East Antarctica, however, is a slightly different story. Here, ice levels are even thought to have grown. (This fact could, however, be linked to rising temperatures leading to an increase in air moisture and thus increased snowfall, which is then condensed into ice over time).
The discrepancy between ice loss in West Antarctica compared to East Antarctica is down to one main fact. West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula is marine-based. With their beds within the Southern Ocean, the outer edges and under layers of ice shelves are in constant contact with the warming ocean. Meanwhile, East Antarctica mostly sits high and dry (literally) on a terrestrial base that acts as a protectant.
Warming trends affecting the (marine-based) Totten and Moscow University glaciers along East Antarctica are showing, however, this section of the continent isn’t totally safe from warming oceans, either.
The reason scientists were so quick to calm fears over Larsen C was due to the potential of it obscuring other, more worrying trends.
Antarctica has been somewhat late to the party regarding climate change. In part this is due to it sitting inside the Southern Ocean Circumpolar Current, isolating it from the rest of the planet).
Greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures around the continent are predicted to rise in the not-so-distant future. If this is a reality, sea-ice in Antarctica could decline by a third, with disastrous implications for sea-level rises. This is on top of known ocean warming already affecting the stability and ice-coverage of West Antarctica.
If predictions ring true, by the end of the century melting Antarctic sea-ice could cause ocean rising of a metre. So, whilst East Antarctica’s resilience so far might be used to suggest that the continent isn’t facing significant anthropogenic-induced change, the
Integral to keeping things under control? Keeping global temperatures down.
Till next time! Kirstie
Cover photo by Cassie Matias on futuretravel.today