World’s largest ice cap will collapse with 2C global warming

If the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is allowed to melt, the consequences for sea levels and life on Earth could be catastrophic.

The world’s largest ice cap is at risk of collapse if global temperatures reach 2°C above pre-industrial levels, the current upper limit stipulated in the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Many environmental scientists have already warned that without rapid and rapid reductions in emissions, as well as efforts to mitigate the impact of greenhouse gases already released into the atmosphere, the world is on track to exceed all the objectives set out in the international treaty. If this happened and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS) were to melt, the impact would be catastrophic, with sea levels rising several meters in just a few centuries.

Avoiding reaching the limit would, on the other hand, mean that the EAIS will contribute less than half a meter to changes in sea level by the year 2500. The results, which come from a study by Durham University involving scientists from the UK, Australia, France and US who modeled the effects of various gases and temperatures on the leaf, were published in the journal Nature.

“A key conclusion from our analysis is that the fate of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet remains in our hands,” said lead author Professor Chris Stokes of Durham University’s Department of Geography. “This ice cap is by far the largest on the planet, containing the equivalent of 52 meters at sea level and it’s really important that we don’t wake this sleeping giant.

“We used to think that East Antarctica was much less vulnerable to climate change than the ice sheets of West Antarctica or Greenland, but we now know that some areas of East Antarctica are already showing signs of loss of ice. Satellite observations have revealed signs of thinning and retreat, particularly where glaciers draining the main ice sheet come into contact with warm ocean currents.

In March, a research team using 25 years of satellite observations concluded that glaciers in West Antarctica were melting at an accelerating rate.

Image credit: Richard Jones

Teresa H. Sadler