Miles of ice collapsing into the sea

[The NY Times] went to Antarctica to understand how changes to its vast ice sheet might affect the world.

Ice sheets flow downhill, seemingly in slow motion. Mountains funnel the ice into glaciers. And ice flowing from the land into the sea can form a floating ice shelf.

Glaciers in certain areas have been undercut by warmer ocean waters, and the flow of ice is getting faster and faster.

The acceleration is making some scientists fear that Antarctica’s ice sheet may have entered the early stages of an unstoppable disintegration.

Because the collapse of vulnerable parts of the ice sheet could raise the sea level dramatically, the continued existence of the world’s great coastal cities — Miami, New York, Shanghai and many more — is tied to Antarctica’s fate.

Four New York Times journalists joined a Columbia University team in Antarctica late last year to fly across the world’s largest chunk of floating ice in an American military cargo plane loaded with the latest scientific gear.
Inside the cargo hold, an engineer with a shock of white hair directed younger scientists as they threw switches. Gravity meters jumped to life. Radar pulses and laser beams fired toward the ice below.

On computer screens inside the plane, in ghostly traces of data, the broad white surface of the Ross Ice Shelf began to yield the secrets hiding beneath.

“We are 9,000 miles from New York. But we are connected by the ocean.”

said the white-haired engineer, Nicholas Frearson of Columbia.

Nicholas Frearson, at left, in the cargo hold of an LC-130 Hercules.

A rapid disintegration of Antarctica might, in the worst case, cause the sea to rise so fast that tens of millions of coastal refugees would have to flee inland, potentially straining societies to the breaking point. Climate scientists used to regard that scenario as fit only for Hollywood disaster scripts. But these days, they cannot rule it out with any great confidence.

Yet as they try to determine how serious the situation is, the scientists confront a frustrating lack of information.

Recent computer forecasts suggest that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at a high level, parts of Antarctica could break up rapidly, causing the ocean to rise six feet or more by the end of this century. That is double the maximum increase that an international climate panel projected only four years ago.

Read more: NY Times

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