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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

45 million Americans under winter storm watches near New England

Computer model projection showing the winds moving around the powerful East Coast storm on Saturday Jan. 29, 2022. Image: https://earth.nullschool.net

Nearly 45 million Americans are under winter weather alerts and warnings from North Carolina to northeastern Maine, as a major winter storm threatens the region.

Why it matters: It is predicted to be the biggest blizzard since 2018 to strike the Northeast with more than 2 feet of snow possible in parts of eastern Massachusetts, according to the National Weather Service.

2 hours ago - World

Australian PM pledges $700M for climate change-threatened Great Barrier reef

A green sea turtle is flourishing among the corals at Lady Elliot island in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Friday a AU$1 billion ($703 million) investment plan for the Great Barrier Reef.

Why it matters: The nine-year plan for projects including water quality improvement, reef conservation and supporting some 64,000 tourism jobs comes months ahead of this year's federal election. It has been criticized by scientists and environmental groups for failing to tackle climate change.

Judge nixes Gulf of Mexico oil leases in climate-focused ruling

Tug boats prepare to tow the semi-submersible drilling platform Noble Danny Adkins through the Port Aransas Channel into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 2020 in Port Aransas, Texas. Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday canceled the Biden administration's late 2021 sale of new oil-and-gas drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why it matters: The ruling that the greenhouse gas emissions analysis by the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) was insufficient is a win for green groups that challenged the decision, as they seek to curb fossil fuel production.