The journal Science has named research on the accelerating melting of the great ice sheets as one of the runner-ups to the top scientific breakthrough of the year. Science heralded the proof of the Poincaré conjecture as the top breakthrough of the year (if not the decade).
The journal noted that different teams of glaciologists confirmed via techniques and measurements that span decades that the world’s two great ice sheets—covering Greenland and Antarctica—are losing ice to the ocean at an accelerating pace.
The future of the ice sheets is still rife with uncertainty, but if the unexpectedly rapid shrinkage continues, low-lying coasts around the world—including New Orleans, South Florida, and much of Bangladesh—could face inundation within a couple of centuries rather than millennia.
Different techniques and even different analyses of the same data disagree about just how much ice volume is changing. All of them, however, now show that both Greenland and Antarctica have been losing ice over the past 5 to 10 years. In the north, Greenland is shedding at least 100 gigatons each year. In the south, the figure is less certain but lies in the range of tens of gigatons per year or more.
Current ice sheet losses aren’t raising sea level faster than 0.1 meter per century, but researchers fear that the rate could rise to a meter per century or more in the near future.
...it turns out the ice isn’t just melting faster, it is moving faster. Radar mapping shows that in recent years, glaciers carrying ice away from the sheets have sped up by as much as 100%. In West Antarctica, warming ocean waters seem to have attacked the floating tongues of ice that hold back the ice sheet’s outlet glaciers. Around southern Greenland, something else seems to be quickening the pace of outlet glaciers...
The other breakthroughs named as runner-up to the proof of the Poincaré conjecture are:
- The sequencing and analysis of fossil DNA;
- The discovery of the fossil fish Tiktaalik;
- The development and demonstration of the first “invisibility” cloak;
- Progress against macular degeneration;
- Advances in understanding biodiversity;
- The development and application of new microscopy techniques that get around the “diffraction limit”;
- New research on the mechanisms of memory; and
- The discovery of Piwi-interacting RNAs (piRNAs).