West Antarctica icesheet warming at an alarming rate study shows

First Posted: Dec 24, 2012 05:52 PM EST

Dangerous climate-change induced melting of Antartica's ice is happening even faster than previously thought by scientists, as a new study published in Nature Geoscience has found.

Scientists at a remote outpost in western Antarctica have been recording the region's weather and temperatures for over 50 years now, with the dire result that temperatures have risen up by 2.4 degrees Celsius since 1958 - that is, three times faster than the average temperature rise around the globe, and twice as much as previously thought.

If temperatures continue climbing on this path it could result in a rapid partial collapse, since it would mean warmer and longer periods of melting for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, say researchers. They point at the example of the Larsen B ice shelf, which collapsed in just one month's time in 2002.

If melting occurs in just this region around the Byrd research station, over a prolonged time of hundreds of years, the global sea-level would rise by 3 meters, according to scientists. While the mean temperatures during the summer are still below zero, the authors warn that the rising temperatures have "enhanced the probability of extensive melting events" as happened in the region during a period of warm weather in 2005.

In the past, researchers haven't been able to make much use of the Byrd Station measurements because the data was incomplete; nearly one third of the temperature observations were missing for the time period of the study. Since its establishment in 1957, the station hasn't always been occupied. A year-round automated station was installed in 1980, but it has experienced frequent power outages, especially during the long polar night, when its solar panels can't recharge.

The surprising findings of the new study highlight the need to extend climate research in Antarctica, according to David Bromwich, professor of geography at Ohio State University and senior research scientist at the Byrd Polar Research Center.

"West Antarctica is one of the most rapidly changing regions on Earth, but it is also one of the least known," he said. "Our study underscores the need for a reliable network of meteorological observations throughout West Antarctica, so that we can know what is happening-and why-with more certainty."

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