2°C more heat may mean catastrophic sea level rise

By Tim Radford | 7 May 2021
Climate News Network

The Ross ice shelf: The Antarctic sea ice could start a disastrous melt if the world fails to keep climate heating below 2°C. (Image: Michael Van Woert / NOAA NESDIS)

The Paris Agreement to limit global heat could prevent catastrophic sea level rise, if states keep their promises to cut carbon.

Climate scientists warn that – unless the world acts to limit global heating – the Antarctic ice sheet could begin irreversible collapse. The ice on the Antarctic continent could raise global sea levels by more than 47 metres, higher than a ten-storey building, and enough to unleash catastrophic sea level rise.

Global warming of just 3°C above the long-term average for most of human history would bring on a sea level rise from south polar melting of at least 0.5cms a year from about 2060 onwards.

Right now, greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase as nations burn ever more coal, oil and gas to power economic growth, and the world is on course for temperatures significantly above 3°C.

Researchers calculate in the journal Nature that any global warming that exceeds the target of no more than 2°C by 2100, agreed by almost all of the world’s nations in Paris in 2015, will put the ice shelves that ring the southern continent at risk of melting.

The mass and extent of sea ice acts as a buttress to flow from higher ground. If the sea ice melts, then the flow of glacial ice to the sea will accelerate.

“Ice-sheet collapse is irreversible over thousands of years, and if the Antarctic ice sheet collapse becomes unstable it could continue to retreat for centuries,” said Daniel Gilford of Rutgers University in the US, one of the research team. “That’s regardless of whether emissions mitigation strategies such as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere are employed.”

The finding is based on computer simulation backed up by detailed knowledge of at least some of the more prominent glaciers in West Antarctica, and of the response of the sea ice offshore to warmer winds and ocean currents.

Nor can it be a surprise to climate scientists: they have been warning for years of the potential loss of shelf-ice, they have already warned that ice loss could become irreversible, and they have measured the rates of loss often enough to be confident that this is accelerating.

On course for 3°C

The ice in Antarctica sits on a landmass bigger than the entire US and European Union combined: the burden of ice adds up to 30 million cubic kilometres, and some of it flows as vast glaciers 50kms wide and 2000 metres deep. And there has been concern for years that some flows are accelerating.

The Paris Agreement actually settled on the phrase “well below 2°C” as the global ambition for 2100. The national plans declared so far to reduce emissions commit the planet to a warming of 3°C or more.

The fear is that at 3°C nothing could prevent eventual ice sheet attrition over the following centuries. The latest research confirms that fear with a more than usually forthright scientific conclusion.

“These results demonstrate the possibility that unstoppable, catastrophic sea level rise from Antarctica will be triggered if the Paris Agreement temperature targets are exceeded,” the scientists write.

Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.

ScienceCasts: No Turning Back – West Antarctic Glaciers in Irreversible Decline

Antarctic studies show irreversible ice melt

Antarctica is losing ice at an accelerating rate. How much will sea levels rise?

World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency

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