What’s the Deal, Antarctica?

By on June 18, 2014

Antarctica is like the first jug of milk in the market fridge; everyone overlooks it to reach for longer-lasting gallons in the back, and it isn’t until that one kid knocks it over and spills it everywhere, potentially flooding the Earth’s landmasses with a 10-foot sea level rise, that people notice it.

The deal is that the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting faster than originally presumed and popular headlines like to point out that these “collapsing” glaciers could lead to 10 feet of sea level rise, likely because of climate change.

Well, not so fast.

The glaciers do not have aberrant narcolepsy. They are not likely to buckle their knees and collapse in the next few decades. During the next few centuries, likely sooner, the Thwaites glacier, among others, will gradually melt into the ocean, and this gradual melting will raise the sea level. Some major concerns, though: this melting might actually accelerate and become more serious.

Researchers are saying this melting is irreversible—unstoppable, even. Perhaps within the next century, the oceans will rise anywhere from 3 feet to a whopping 10 feet. To exacerbate the issue, the Eastern sheet’s stability is also under question.

A global issue, this sea level rise could theoretically wipe out thriving crop regions in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and China, potentially destroying over 4 million hectares of land there. Here, in the US, over 700,000 people in New York City and 340,000 in New Orleans would have to relocate. $950 billion of property damage would befall Florida, whose coastal cities would be the hardest hit. This is all speculation, of course, but an issue nonetheless.

What is causing this phenomenon? Is it climate change? Is it another one of those Anthropocene moments when humanity relegates nature?

Researchers have generally ruled out that this Antarctic melting is happening because of warmer air. Really, the warm water beneath the floating ice is the culprit. The warm water is natural, but intensifying winds around the Antarctic have been stirring this warmer water closer to the ice. There is no clear explanation for the more powerful winds, however. The grounding line is the border between glaciers on land and those floating on the sea, and this sacred barrier is receding, forcing more glaciers into the water. This dislocation of ice not only displaces more ocean, but exposes glaciers to currents of warm water as well. Thus, more ice melts, more ice slides towards the ocean, and more ice melts. This is the acceleration researchers are worried about.

A recent revelation fits into the puzzle: geothermal heat because of volcanic activity beneath the continents. Researchers have known that there is heat beneath landmasses, but they presumed that the distribution of heat was even throughout the continent. However, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin revealed, using radar technology, that instead of even heat distribution, there are some areas that are hotter than others (hotter than previously thought, as well). This uneven heat underneath the glaciers destabilizes them and makes it easier for them to slide into the ocean.

This is not to say that climate change is not an issue. In fact, the Antarctic land and sea biodiversity cringes at temperature and pH changes, among other things, that greenhouse gases provoke. Never mind the rampant effects that climate change has on the entire Earth. The Antarctic melt issue is instead a signaling flare for change. It is a throbbing headache that reminds us that not everything can be reversed if gone too far.

Not everything can be fixed or controlled.










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About Rhiana Simon

Neuroscience student. Aspiring researcher, writer, and avid insect collector.
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