Scientists have long feared that Earth might feel the full effects of global warming within a few decades. But rapidly melting sea ice around Antarctica could spell disaster sooner than anyone thought. Here is what’s happening.
Ice in the sea around Antarctica is an important regulator for temperatures around the globe.
A Giant Mirror
Forming a huge white mass that connects with ice on land, icebergs, and ice shelves, sea ice acts as a mirror to reflect much of the sun’s heat back into the atmosphere and space.
That keeps the water beneath the ice cold, which makes those icy waters a heat sink for the entire planet. It’s like a big reservoir of coolant that helps keep us from overheating.
Scientists Smell Trouble
But scientists have been tracking an alarming trend during the Antarctic winter months of 2023.
The Ice Is Disappearing
With summer set to start in the southern hemisphere, Walter Meier of the National Snow and Ice Data Center says the sea ice area has fallen to record lows.
A Massive Drop
At 17 million square kilometers, the floating sea ice around Antarctica is about 1.5 million square kilometers smaller than usual at this time of year.
Unstoppable Chain Reaction
And, with warmer temperatures just ahead, scientists fear a sort of chain reaction could occur that might mean irreversible ice loss.
Long and Dangerous Cycle
Dr. Caroline Holmes at the British Antarctic Survey says we could be in for a long and dangerous cycle of the so-called “ice-albedo effect.”
As sea sea ice melts, the sun’s rays are absorbed by the dark ocean below instead of reflected back toward space.
A Bubbling Cauldron
The water warms up as a result, which leads to even more ice melting and exposes even more dark ocean to absorb even more heat.
All the Ice Could Melt
At least in theory, the loop could continue until the ice is all gone. And that could spell global disaster.
Massive Storms on the Coast
Even a slight rise in either sea level or sea temperature can cause massive storms and tidal waves on coast lines everywhere on earth.
Nowhere Would Be Safe
If the melting continued onto mainland Antarctica, it’s hard to predict exactly how catastrophic the result would be. But nowhere on earth would be safe from the effects.
Just a Perfect Storm?
Dr. Robbie Mallet, whose team measures ice thickness at the Rothera scientific base, says there is some chance we’re witnessing a perfect storm scenario in Antarctica.
A Natural Conspiracy
It’s possible, for example, that many natural phenomena are coinciding and making the current ice melting situation as bad as possible.
Plenty of Possible Causes
Mallet points to this year’s overall warmer oceans, shifting currents, and a developing El Niño as factors that could be contributing to the ice melting.
Maybe It Will Work Out
That thought gives a glimmer of hope that nature could self correct and the ice could start to regrow once some or all of those forces change course.
But Mallet also warns there is no guarantee what’s happening in Antarctica is a moment-in-time glitch that nature will self correct.
Plenty to Worry About
Instead, Mallet echoes the feelings of many other scientists and climate observers in saying that we have “very, very good reasons to be worried”.
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