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Antarctic Ice Sheet Losing Mass

A composite image map of the Antarctic constructed from satellite photos. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is on the left side of the image. Source: OSU

A study by University of Colorado at Boulder researchers has determined that the Antarctic ice sheet, which harbors 90 percent of Earth’s ice, has lost significant mass in recent years—most of it from the West Antarctic ice sheet.

The team used measurements taken with NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites to conclude that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing up to 152 ± 80 cubic kilometers annually. The estimated ice loss in Antarctica is equivalent to 0.4 ± 0.2 mm/year of global sea rise, with a margin of error of 0.2 millimeters, according to the study, which appears online in Science Express.

This is the first study to indicate the total mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet is in significant decline.

—Isabella Velicogna, chief author

The findings counter the prediction of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment, completed in 2001, that projected that the Antarctic ice sheet would gain mass in the 21st century due to increased precipitation in a warming climate.

Researchers used GRACE data to calculate the total ice mass in Antarctica between April 2002 and August 2005 for the study, said Velicogna, who also is affiliated with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Launched in 2002 by NASA and Germany, the two GRACE satellites orbit Earth 16 times a day at an altitude of 310 miles, sensing subtle variations in Earth’s mass and gravitational pull. Separated by 137 miles at all times, the satellites measure changes in Earth’s gravity field caused by regional changes in the planet’s mass, including such things as ice sheets, oceans and water stored in the soil and in underground aquifers.

A change in gravity due to a pass over a portion of the Antarctic ice sheet, for example, imperceptibly tugs the lead satellite away from the trailing satellite, according to Velicogna. A sensitive ranging system allows researchers to measure the distance of the two satellites down to as small as 1 micron and to then calculate the ice mass in particular regions of the continent.

A study spearheaded by researchers at CU-Boulder and published in September 2004 concluded that glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula—which juts north from the West Antarctic ice sheet toward South America—sped up dramatically following the collapse of Larsen B ice shelf in 2002. Ice shelves on the peninsula—which has warmed by an average of 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 60 years—have decreased by more than 5,200 square miles in the past three decades.

The fifth largest continent, Antarctica is the Earth’s highest, windiest, coldest, and driest land mass. Its surface is 99.7% covered by a vast ice sheet with an average thickness of ~2 km and a total volume of ~25M km3.  Floating ice shelves constitute about 11% of the continent.

The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet alone—which is about eight times smaller in volume than the East Antarctic ice sheet—would raise global sea levels by more than 20 feet, according to researchers from the British Antarctic Survey. The possible deglaciation of that polar ice sheet and that of Greenland are two topics of considerable concern in the British report on Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. (Earlier post.)




232 km3 (max figure) of a total ice mass of 25,000,000 km3 is less than one thousandth of 1%. Or am I missing something? Surely it's the rate of change that is important here? We need a graph of annual ice melt over time. What does "5,200 sq miles over 3 decades" look like in km3 loss plotted annually? Is it a straight line or increasing exponentially?


This is a significant study. Data this accurate has not been available before. By 2008(9)? we should have enough additional data to make it conclusive. My guess is that it is exponential. Meanwhile, given the role of large ice masses in stabilizing rapid climate change, it is not obvious to me why a small overall percentage change should be considered insignificant. In other words, if we consider the Antarctic ice mass as the last stop in a long chain of events, then even a minute change is of grave consequence.

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