The collapse of large parts of the ice sheet in West Antarctica appears to have begun and is almost certainly unstoppable, with global warming accelerating the pace of the disintegration, two groups of scientists reported Monday.
The finding, which had been feared by some scientists for decades, means that a rise in global sea level of at least 10 feet may now be inevitable. The rise may continue to be relatively slow for at least the next century or so, the scientists said, but sometime after that it will probably speed up so sharply as to become a crisis.
“This is really happening,” said Thomas P. Wagner, who runs NASA’s programs on polar ice and helped oversee some of the research. “There’s nothing to stop it now. But you are still limited by the physics of how fast the ice can flow.”
Two papers scheduled for publication this week, in the journals Science and Geophysical Research Letters, attempt to make sense of an accelerated flow of glaciers seen in parts of West Antarctica in recent decades.
Both papers conclude that warm water upwelling from the ocean depths has most likely triggered an inherent instability that makes the West Antarctic ice sheet vulnerable to a slow-motion collapse. And one paper concludes that factors some scientists had hoped might counteract such a collapse will not do so.
The new finding appears to be the fulfillment of a prediction made in 1978 by an eminent glaciologist, John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University. He outlined the uniquely vulnerable nature of the West Antarctic ice sheet and warned that the rapid human release of greenhouse gases posed “a threat of disaster.” He was assailed at the time, but in recent years scientists have been watching with growing concern as events have unfolded in much the way Dr. Mercer predicted. (He died in 1987.)
Scientists said the ice sheet was not melting because of warmer air temperatures, but rather because of the relatively warm water, which is naturally occurring, from the ocean depths. That water is being pulled upward and toward the ice sheet by intensification of the winds around Antarctica.
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