2. Unsettling news from East Antarctica
A new study reveals that the Wilkes Subglacial Basin, in the southeastern corner of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, is far more vulnerable to even modest amounts of warming than previously thought. The study was published Wednesday in the journal Nature.
Why it matters: The fate of the Antarctic Ice Sheet represents one of the largest uncertainties in climate science, given the potential for ice melt to add feet of sea level rise around the world.
What they did: An international team of scientists drilled sediment cores off the coast of the Wilkes Subglacial Basin and analyzed its chemical composition and sediment records to sift for clues about past glacial behavior.
- Glaciers carve out and drag sediment from rocks as they flow into the sea over time, leaving a historical record of their ebb and flow buried under layers of the ocean floor.
- By unearthing this record from the deep, scientists were able to discern how this part of East Antarctica responded to warming during the late Pleistocene Interglacial periods.
What they found: The study concludes that a moderate amount of warming, on the order of 2°C, or 3.6°F, sustained for millennia, would cause significant melting of the interior ice that lies below sea level in this region, raising global sea levels by 3-4 meters, or up to 13 feet.
What they're saying: "Over the last few years, a picture has started to emerge of [the] vulnerability of low-lying areas of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet to temperatures only a few degrees warmer than today," study lead author David Wilson, a researcher at Imperial College London, tells Axios.
- Richard Alley, a climate scientist at Penn State who was not involved in the new study, tells Axios that the new study improves our knowledge of East Antarctica's fragility.
- "Oversimplifying a little, the new paper does a good job of showing that the slight extra warmth from those times led to additional transport of material eroded from the interior regions of deep basins in East Antarctica," Alley says.
Isabella Velicogna, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, tells Axios that this paper fits the theme of other studies coming out of East Antarctica, all showing it's "less stable than we have thought." She was not involved in the new study.
"The importance of this study is that it calls for more attention for East Antarctica." — Isabella Velicogna, University of California at Irvine