The Antarctic ice sheet is melting at a faster rate than at any previously recorded time, according to a comprehensive new study.
The planet’s largest ice sheet is now losing more than 240 billion tons of ice every year ― a threefold increase from less than a decade ago. The melting is happening so fast that it could cause sea levels to rise 6 inches by the end of the century, the study projects.
The accelerating pace of melting means rising sea levels could threaten coastal communities far earlier than scientists had expected. North America, particularly the East Coast of the U.S., could be particularly hard-hit.
The study, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, has been described as the most exhaustive analysis ever conducted on the changes to Antarctica’s ice sheet. The research involved more than 80 scientists from 44 international organizations and used data taken from multiple satellites, as well as air and ground measurements and computer simulations.
“We took all the estimates across all the different techniques, and we got this consensus,” Isabella Velicogna, an Antarctic ice expert at the University of California at Irvine, told The Washington Post.
The research shows that Antarctica has lost almost 3 trillion tons of ice since 1992. Of that loss, 40 percent took place from 2012 to 2017.
Lead author Andrew Shepherd of the University of Leeds told NPR that prior to 2012, Antarctica’s ice losses had been contributing a “relatively small proportion” to global sea level rise. Since then, however, the melt rate has increased dramatically from an average of about 84 billion tons a year between 1992 and 2011, to more than 241 billion tons a year from 2012 to 2017.
“The ice sheet is now losing three times as much ice,” Shepherd told NPR, adding that the annual sea level rise attributed to Antarctica has similarly tripled ― from 0.2 mm to 0.6 mm.
“That’s a big jump, and it did catch us all by surprise,” Shepherd said.
It’s “possible that Antarctica alone can add about half a foot to sea level rise by the end of the century,” Shepherd said in an interview with The Associated Press. He noted that climate change is the only plausible cause of this increased ice melt.
Scientists warn that Antarctica’s rapid melting could mean countries now have even less time to take action against climate change if they hope to protect vulnerable communities from rising sea levels. A separate study, also published in Nature this week, said governments will need to take action within the next decade to prevent the worst impacts of Antarctic melt.
The Atlantic noted this week that millions of people on the U.S. East Coast could be displaced from their homes by the end of the century because of melting in parts of western Antarctica ― which scientists have identified as being the source of most of the recent melting.
Scientists involved in the new study said people should be concerned by the findings, but there was still time to take action.
“I think we should be worried. That doesn’t mean we should be desperate,” Velicogna told AP. “Things are happening. They are happening faster than we expected.”