Giant glaciers in Western Antarctica are melting at an “unstoppable” rate that could cause global sea levels to rise far quicker than previously thought.
That is according to recent studies conducted by NASA and the Universities of California and Washington.
Using data collected from satellites and other aircraft, the studies show six glaciers melting at a rate that makes their eventual disappearance inevitable – over the next 200 to 1,000 years.
“We’ve passed the point of no return in this sector and at this point it’s just a matter of time before these glaciers completely disappear to sea,” says NASA glaciologist Eric Rignot.
The data has been turned into a graphic animation that illustrates the speed of water flowing from each of the glaciers.
Regions marked in red indicate areas where the flow increases every year.
Point at one, NASA’s Rignot said: “We are seeing in this sector retreat rates that we don’t see anywhere else on earth. They are retreating at rates of about a kilometre per year. That may not seem much to people who are not familiar with these glaciers but most of them don’t change on that scale.”
One area of particular concern is the Smith Glacier. Radar images enabled the researchers to map the so-called “grounding line”, which is the point at which a glacier rests on open water rather than on rock. Results showed a record retreat of 35 kilometres over 15 years, a process they describe as irreversible.
A slow-motion collapse could cause global sea levels to rise by an estimated 10 centimetres per century, according to researchers, who say that the only uncertainty that remains is just how long it will take.