Earth News Journal 42: West Antarctica Ice Sheet Collapse

As warmer weather patterns have begun to thaw areas of the winter-crystallized Northern Hemisphere, much of the Western Antarctic ice region is also experiencing a period of melting, according to a recent report issued from the University of California, Irvine in contribution with NASA.

The glacial system in question, a stretch of some two miles located in the western-most portion on this island of ice, was originally thought by researchers to remain relatively stable for perhaps thousands of years. Recent findings, however, suggest that a section known as the Thwaites glacier “is really in the early stages of collapse,” Ian Joughin of University of Washington, Seattle stated in the journal Science earlier in May.

Furthermore, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet area of concern contains six glaciers, each of which have “passed the point of no return,” in terms of climatic impact on the rise in sea levels worldwide. Combined, the total collective sea level return from these six glaciers is four additional feet of water, and projected models estimate the glaciers may disappear in as little as two centuries, those these models are guesses at best, according to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

The Thwaites glacier alone could possible contribute 24 inches of additional sea level rise and is likely to collapse within the same time frame. Rates of melting ice depend on “how fast temperatures rise and how much snow falls in the area,” Joughin said.

While these glacial reports predict a somewhat precarious future for the Amundsen Sea region of Antarctica, the entire frigid shelf is in even more danger; Joughin predicts that the collapse of the Thwaites glacier could potentially crumble the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, “since the systems are connected.”

Assuming worst comes to worst, the full-melted sheet would amount to 11 feet of additional sea level rise, inciting disaster for most of America’s coastal-front developments, especially large metropolitan cites like New York City and New Orleans, not to mention crippling worldwide ocean-dependent populations. The ultimate mechanical failure of the Thwaites glacier would result in a not-so-positive positive feedback loop – a sliding mass of rock and once-frozen water adding buckets of additional saline H2O to Earth’s already-brimming oceans.

Reflection

The thaw of spring is a welcome embrace in many parts of the world, especially in Mid-West Ohio, where winters here can last for months on end, seemingly with no reprieve. Though as much as I detest the dreaded accumulation of snow and ice on my window sill, I understand the necessity of such biome in other regions of the world. Each ecosystem has its fair share of contributions in order to make our Earth function properly or without catastrophic consequences for its inhabitants. The tundra and the Arctic are vital components in our global ecosystem, same as grasslands provide agriculture production and temperate forests provide wood and animals for fuel and food.  As scientists attest, the Arctic is a prime location for storing some of Earth’s water, such as in glacial sheets and chunks of snow. When these systems are disrupted by a team of unnatural and natural forces, the benefits of such frozen refrigerators evaporates with its icy contents. The region becomes superfluous – unneeded and unnecessary. Instead of deciding in hindsight that this particular biome was, in fact, critical for human stability as we know it, let us actively seek to protect this ‘unattractive’ permafrost to secure our world a more stable future. 

Howard, Brian Clark. “West Antarctica Glaciers Collapsing, Adding to Sea-Level Rise.” National Geographic. 12 May 2014. Web. 19 May 2014.

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