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The western edge of iceberg A68, as seen in 2017. Photo: NASA/Nathan Kurtz

Antarctica is shedding ice at an increasingly rapid rate, potentially imperiling coastlines around the world as sea levels increase in response, a new study finds.

Why it matters: Antarctica is already contributing a growing amount to sea level rise, the study found, and things could get much worse.

The big picture: The new study, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Antarctica has shed ice at a growing rate in recent decades.

  • From 1979 to 1990, the average annual ice mass loss rate was 40 billion metric tons per year.
  • This jumped to 252 billion metric tons per year, between 2009 to 2017.

The study, from glaciologists at the University of California at Irvine and Netherlands' Utrecht University, also contains the worrisome conclusion that East Antarctica has been losing mass since the 1980s. That's important because previous studies had regarded that part of the continent as stable or not yet undergoing a net loss.

Details: Warming ocean waters are weakening floating ice shelves, which act like doorstops that keep massive amounts of inland ice from flowing quickly into the sea.

  • The warm waters, pumped in by natural variability and human-caused climate change, are melting such shelves from below, and the new study found the parts of Antarctica that are melting the fastest are ones that have an ocean influence.

The researchers set out to complete a comprehensive survey of the ice-bound continent using a variety of data sources, such as NASA aircraft reconnaissance and satellite measurements. They examined 18 regions that included 176 glacier basins.

  • The study took into account the balance between inland snowfall and coastal ice melt. As recently as 2001, scientists thought that increased snowfall could compensate for ice loss at the margins, but that is no longer the case.

What they're saying: "The really big questions are whether the recent acceleration in mass loss will continue, leading to rapid deglaciation of one or more basins and much faster sea-level rise," Richard Alley, a geosciences professor at Penn State University, told Axios via email. Alley was not involved in the new study.

  • "We do not know the answer to this, but we do know that the more humans warm the climate, the more likely it is that the ice will respond."
  • Robin Bell, who studies ice sheets at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, says the new study is a welcome addition to the literature on Antarctica. "[It] Shows how the ice sheets are in a different place and changing faster than we could have imagined in the 1970's," she said in an email to Axios.

What's next: Glaciologists need to reconcile the new study's findings with a large study published last year that found East Antarctica has not been losing ice so quickly, though it raised the possibility of future losses.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 9 mins ago - Sports

Simone Biles won't compete in individual vault or uneven bars Olympic finals

Photo: Loic Venance/AFP via Getty Images

Simone Biles will not compete in the individual vault or uneven bars finals at the Tokyo Olympics, USA Gymnastics announced Friday.

Why it matters: Biles drew global attention after pulling out of the individual all-around and team finals to prioritize her mental health. It's unclear if she will compete in the balance beam or floor exercise events.

25 mins ago - Sports

American Katie Ledecky wins Olympic gold in women's 800m freestyle

Photo: François-Xavier Marit/AFP via Getty Images

American superstar swimmer Katie Ledecky grabbed her second gold medal of this year's Olympic Games, winning the women's 800-meter freestyle race Saturday in Tokyo.

Driving the news: Ledecky, who holds the world record in the 800m freestyle, is considered one of the best women swimmers of all time. Earlier this week, she snagged gold in the first-ever women's 1500m freestyle and took home silver medals in the 400m freestyle and the 4x2100m freestyle relay.

38 mins ago - Sports

Caeleb Dressel breaks world record in men's 100m butterfly, wins 3rd gold in Tokyo

Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel broke the world record in the men's 100-meter butterfly final in Tokyo on Saturday, picking up his third gold medal of this year's Games.

The big picture: Dressel finished with a time of 49.45 seconds. Hungary's Kristóf Milák won the silver, and Switzerland's Noe Ponti took the bronze.