Western Antarctica ice sheet collapse now unstoppable, will cause up to 4m sea-level rise

Climate news, and not good news at all. Two separate studies confirm that one of the key ice shelves in Western Antarctica is collapsing. The loss of the ice sheet is inevitable — it can’t be stopped.

The analysis suggests that “up to 4 meters of sea-level rise” is inevitable, but I think they’re being — again — optimistic. See below for more on that. There’s much more ice available.

Here’s the news via the Guardian (my emphasis and paragraphing):

The collapse of the Western Antarctica ice sheet is already under way and is unstoppable, two separate teams of scientists said on Monday. The glaciers’ retreat is being driven by climate change and is already causing sea-level rise at a much faster rate than scientists had anticipated.

Antarctica (click to enlarge)

Antarctica (click to enlarge). The ice shelves mentioned are in the Amundsen Sea bay.

The loss of the entire western Antarctica ice sheet could eventually cause up to 4 metres (13ft) of sea-level rise, devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world. …

The two studies, by Nasa and the University of Washington, looked at the ice sheets of western Antarctica over different periods of time. The Nasa researchers focused on melting over the last 20 years, while the scientists at the University of Washington used computer modelling to look into the future of the western Antarctic ice sheet.

But both studies came to broadly similar conclusions – that the thinning and melting of the Antarctic ice sheet has begun and cannot be halted, even with drastic action to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

There are many ice sheets in Western Antarctica (see map), which the article says account for (just) 4 meters of potential sea level rise. The National Geographic points out:

[S]ix big glaciers in the Amundsen Sea “have passed the point of no return”[.]

There’s an excellent graphic here that shows the extent of the ice loss caused by these glacial melts.

How much ice is there to melt?

When it all goes, all the ice on the planet, we’re looking at a minimum of 65 meters of sea-rise. Thanks to the always helpful Greg Laden, we found this USGS page that gives the number as 80 meters, and accounts for it in these cold locations:

Table 1. Estimated potential maximum sea-level rise from the total melting of present-day glaciers.
Volume (km3)
Potential sea-level rise, (m)
East Antarctic ice sheet
West Antarctic ice sheet
Antarctic Peninsula
All other ice caps, ice fields, and valley glaciers

The big one is the East Antarctic ice sheet — almost 65 meters worth of water — but there plenty in Greenland and the rest of  West Australia as well. I’m not sure this takes into account the fact that water expands at higher temperatures as well. But more on that at another time.

How soon will the seas start rising?

The article goes on to say that most sea rise is “several centuries off” — but don’t get comfortable. I’m getting up to speed on the rate of sea level rise, and every prediction is wrong to the small side. For example, from the article:

The two studies between them suggest sea-level rise will be far greater than envisaged by the United Nations’ IPCC report earlier this year. The IPCC forecast on sea-level rise did not factor in the melting of the western Antarctica ice sheet.


Rignot said he was taken aback at how fast change was occurring.

“This system, whether Greenland or Antarctica, is changing on a faster time scale than we anticipated. We are discovering that every day,” Rignot said.

Yet the article still sees the timescale of major sea level changes as taking centuries, not decades. But again, everyone is wrong to the slow side. Remember this, from 2009?

Arctic sea ice — projected vs. observed as of 2009, Fig. 12 from the Copenhagen Diagnosis

Arctic sea ice — projected vs. observed as of 2009 (Fig. 12 from the Copenhagen Diagnosis)

The red line above is reality. The blue, IPCC best guesses. How does it help us to be so conservative?

I’m looking into the rate of projected sea level rise closely, and will try to summarize the best estimates later. But for scale of sea rise, however, much is known. Just keep the above in mind. There somewhere between 65 and 80 meters sea rise if we don’t … well, stop spewing carbon.

It gets worse. According to James Hansen, in a non-ice-free world, a change of 1°C in mean surface temperature means a change in sea level of about 20 meters. We’ve already seen +1°C change (with an equal amount in the pipeline) since pre-industrial time. We’re due for that 20 meters, even if we stop here and stick with the CO2 we’ve already emitted. (Hansen has a way to pull the emissions back, but again, that’s for later.)

I wonder — what kind of crisis will it take before people even try to make meaningful change? Do you wonder that too? What are your thoughts about what it will take?


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Gaius Publius is a professional writer living on the West Coast of the United States.

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54 Responses to “Western Antarctica ice sheet collapse now unstoppable, will cause up to 4m sea-level rise”

  1. 4th Turning says:

    I think the couch you refer to also has built-in cup holders if I’m not mistaken.

  2. UncleBucky says:

    Likewise. But they’ll grab my uhaul to put instead the fluffy couch, entertainment center and their gaming equipment. They’ll empty the uhaul into the ditch.

  3. 4th Turning says:

    Interesting what bits got preserved were thanks to the Arab Empire and now
    same is not looking too favorably on “western” decadent literature, etc.
    Don’t know about you, but I’ve “amassed” a tiny personal library of the ten
    books I’d lug to that deserted island (metaphor since all will soon enough
    be under water). Actually several “tens” at this point so will probably
    require multiple trips in the uhaul.

  4. PeteWa says:

    if we even get to 2075.

  5. Indigo says:

    Here in Florida, we sit on a porous limestone peninsula formed from ancient coral. The dikes are useless here because no matter how well engineered they might be, the sea water seeps in through the porous limestone. In some places along the coast, it’s no longer possible to pump fresh water from the aquifer because the water is already gone to salt. It’s serious but the talking heads and the sputtering hipsters do nothing beyond sputtering and talking. It’s a lost cause, I fear.

  6. UncleBucky says:

    That’s always my problem. I am both behind the times in culture, aesthetics and language, and ahead of the times in terms of science, reality and knowledge of the consequences.

    Gosh damn, I’m screwed every time I try to talk to many of my white suburban thumperist peers. I might as well be speaking Spanish, Chinese, or Quechua.

  7. UncleBucky says:

    Yes. The first dark age began when Paulist Christians started burning books, ripping down libraries, and prohibiting education except the Bible. Around 380 to 500 CE.

    The same is happening with modern universities, schools, libraries and communication/education. Privatization for ultimate control. In a private company, it’s a dictatorship, not democracy.

  8. UncleBucky says:

    And the kids who are either in denial or ignorance of that freight train.

    It’s gonna hurt bad around 2035 to 2075. Really bad.

  9. UncleBucky says:

    I fear this most of all. Cornered capitalist authoritarians and their minions are not afraid to intimidate, harm, torture and kill.

    Just consider the recent writings by Mencius Moldbug. Educated people who believe the only way is by replacing any remaining democracy with oligarchy and monarchy.

  10. UncleBucky says:

    Valmeyer, IL, is a model on small scale for this. But sadly, barriers such as in the Netherlands, London, Venice, and other places will not save NYC, Washington, DC, and other low-lying urban areas. And how will we move the Washington Monument? Eh?

    “Merikuh” is run by stupids. And the stupid will burn unquenchingly in 3, 2, 1…

  11. UncleBucky says:

    “what kind of crisis will it take” ?

    I’d say frequent water on the streets of US coastal cities* in the same way as in Venice, Italy.

    Also, erosion of beachfront along the East Coast.

    * Florida Keys, Miami Beach, Miami, Washington, D.C., and all the way up to Boston…

  12. 4th Turning says:

    “Civilization was pretty great while it lasted, wasn’t it? Too bad it’s not going to for much longer. According to a new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, we only have a few decades left before everything we know and hold dear collapses.

    The report, written by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center along with a team of natural and social scientists, explains that modern civilization is doomed. And there’s not just one particular group to blame, but the entire fundamental structure and nature of our society.

    Analyzing five risk factors for societal collapse (population, climate, water, agriculture and energy), the report says that the sudden downfall of complicated societal structures can follow when these factors converge to form two important criteria. Motesharrei’s report says that all societal collapses over the past 5,000 years have involved both “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity” and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor].” This “Elite” population restricts the flow of resources accessible to the “Masses”, accumulating a surplus for themselves that is high enough to strain natural resources. Eventually this situation will inevitably result in the destruction of society.

    Elite power, the report suggests, will buffer “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners,” allowing the privileged to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”


  13. Drew2u says:

    Those are not mutually exclusive.

  14. 4th Turning says:

    “One of the things brought up in the House Committee meeting was concern over teaching climate and weather subjects in early grades.

    Oklahoma Rep. Mark McCullough expressed his concern over the sections in the standards that deal with climate science, sections he said make references to “human impacts on the climate” in third, fourth, and fifth grades. He also said he thought references to human activity related to the environment focused on negative aspects of human involvement, such as the over-spraying of pesticides, and said “positive” examples of humans intervening in the environment to produce a change, such as flood control, weren’t as common, a focus that could end up leading to an “agenda-driven curriculum” that teaches students that “people are the problem.”

    “There’s been a lot of criticisms, in some sectors, as to maybe some of the hyperbole — what some consider hyperbole relative to climate change. I know it’s a very very difficult, very controversial subject,” he said, going on to ask, “do you believe that those sections specifically relating to weather and climate particularly at the earlier ages…could potentially be utilized to implicate into some pretty young impressionable minds, a fairly-one sided view as to that controversial subject, a subject that’s very much in dispute among even the academics?”


  15. 4th Turning says:

    I decided to wait on replying for a couple reasons. I know there are several
    commenters here who in the main agree with me and are probably 10x better
    at explaining our perspective than I.
    The second… Your sadly revealing first sentence. You are trapped in some
    sort of blamegame loop which I humbly suggest we are or should rapidly
    be moving away from now as soon as all are able to get their heads around
    this new first ever in human civilization reality that I don’t think we’ll be able
    to outrun. Remember the Pompeii trailer I put up several generations ago?

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  17. Glado Beme says:

    Why hold Americans responsible? Ask a random group of people of ANY age how electricity gets to their wall socket. Ask them about Ohm’s law. First Law of Thermodynamics. ANY law of Thermodynamics. It is effectively magic.
    What E=mc2 means. How old is the earth and how do we know? What is nuclear radiation? Almost no one knows about the Otto cycle, which is why their car runs. Americans absolutely depend on their automobiles but vanishingly few know ANYTHING about it. Again, it’s effectively magic.
    Don’t count on the citizenry of the US to provide any useful input. The high level of religiousness of Americans, though dropping, and the profound disinterest in science will prevent any forward thinking, as they are convinced that the world will, and SHOULD, end in their lifetime with Haysooooose sweeping them up and dumping on us. Why should they build for the future, fix the infrastructure, invest????
    Although, you should be able to make the argument that we should borrow mountains of money to fix up the country because we won’t ever have to pay it back, when the wold is gonna end in a couple of decades, tops. It’ll keep us busy until the fires of hell engulf us.

  18. pvequalkt says:

    no evidence for this. They showed up but still vote R or D. Stein and Anderson both were better but tallied a total of 1%ish.
    Even the D primary was a foregone. No Kucinich or Grayson to make obamney address his betrayals.
    Even a 5% anti-money vote would have supported your thesis… but all the “others” added up came to only 1.5%.
    If Sanders does actually run (as a second party) and gets more than 2%… maybe that would mean something. But I don’t see it happening. Even labor will surely re-up with Ds… as always. obamney may even gin up another war to help Hillary win… who doesn’t want to vote for another war?
    With this electorate and this bicameral money/war party monopoly I see the only change occurring as a result of total economic collapse. 2008 came on sudden like… maybe by 2016… who knows.

  19. Bill_Perdue says:

    American voters have few choices because the Democrats and Republicans are virtually identical on all the main questions and because left parties are largely kept off the ballot by restrictive laws passed by Democrats and Republicans. Voting Democrat is voting Republican and vice versa.

    The theory of the lesser evil is bunkum. There is no such animal.

    More and more people are correctly rejecting both parties or war, austerity, environmental degradation, racism busting and Bill of Rights busting.

  20. pvequalkt says:

    maybe so. However the gulf stream is symbiotic with the Antarctic brine cycle, which will wane as the Antarctic produces less brine and the cycle gets weaker. If the gulf stream weakens or disappears, the likely cooling of Europe may create a different brine configuration and effects are very difficult to predict.
    However, as more carbon enters the atmosphere and average temps rise, everything will change and get more dynamic (than we’re used to). Some land may become arable that wasn’t… but a lot that is now won’t be then.
    And don’t forget the acidification of the oceans from the CO2… will continue to erase species by the hundreds… corals will be among the first to go poof. And we didn’t need those reefs anyway… right???

  21. pvequalkt says:

    GP: Thank you… again… still
    Your blogposts have been cross-posted to another site where I tended to reply often, and VERY often to your stuff.
    In my replies, for over a year now, I’ve been pointing out what you have now offered. That is that this is already a resonant loop; that it CANNOT be stopped, even if we quit ALL burning of carbon RIGHT FRIGGIN NOW. We are already in a centuries-long resonance whereby warming will continue to cause more releases of stuff (notably methane) into the air which will exacerbate the warming which will cause MORE releases of stuff… which will exacerbate warming.. which will…. and on and on and on.
    The science, noteworthy for its chronic conservativism (irony alert) in its predictions, has been predicting the “under” now for decades… and has lost. Every observation is worse than the prediction. period. fact.
    There was an old parable that I heard probably 50 years ago:
    Gawd appears to some schlemiel and tells him that he will soon flood the earth with 200 feet of water. Then vanishes… poof.
    The schlemiel, freaking out, goes to his clergy and tells him… the clergy immediately demands his flock cough up a 50% tithe and gather daily for prayers to beg their deity for mercy.
    The schlemiel then goes to the local university and speaks to a college of scientists.. who then vow to retire to a quiet location where they may study the situation… and come up with a list of recommendations in a year.
    The schlemiel then goes to his neighbor, reputed to be very wise, and tells him. The neighbor strokes his beard for a few minutes and then says… I guess we’ll have to learn to live under water.
    I’m sure this parable was “noah inspired” and was not from global warming… since almost nobody had any idea 50 years ago. But now I wonder…
    Btw: a schlemiel is a guy who goes to a 5-star restaurant and spills his soup. A schlemazzle is the guy he spills it on.

  22. lynchie says:

    It will bring out the most base of human reactions. Kill all the people you think you hate because they must have caused it. They will never turn inwardly and assess how they did not assess the real problems as they occurred. America loves to forget history whether in unfounded wars, damage to the ecology, attacks on the poor and elderly as the right thing to do, obsession with the lives of other people who have never done a blessed thing, obsession with sports figures all things designed to keep our minds off the real atrocities happening around the world and in the country we live in. We live in a country where the most insane are given time by the media instead of put into padded rooms. Few are prepared to take a stand because all the giant tvs, HD, 3D, keep telling us everything is fine and you can be a millionaire, dance with the stars and look at the Kardashians troll their bodies for cash/.

  23. pvequalkt says:

    for proof, just look at the election results in 2008 and 2010 (after noting the abysmal performance of the new novelty D unitary and the D 110th). And then consider all the science, facts and observations factored into 2012.
    In all cases, with everything we came to know the hard way about Ds (we already knew about Rs), we still voted (98.5%) for the status quo. Stein and Anderson got, collectively, about 1%.
    What that means, quite literally, is this… either:
    1) American voters are dumber than shit
    b) American voters are quite happy with the status quo, however nuanced their rightward leanings may be.

  24. PeteWa says:

    well, I guess if you are going for snark, but I wasn’t.
    what I wrote are very real concerns I have for how humans will react to the inevitable ecological collapse that is heading our way like a freight train.
    I imagine that humans will react the way they have so many times in the past when faced with horrors.
    Hopefully I am wrong and people will not do what they seem to nearly always do in times of crises.

  25. lynchie says:

    Forgot Benghazi

  26. lynchie says:

    Who cares about history when we are all paddling around without a future

  27. lynchie says:

    Exactly. The GOP are convinced the earth is flat since few have ever left the U.S.

    Less than 1/2 hold a valid passport


  28. PeteWa says:

    or, more likely than that:
    1. scapegoating
    1a. gays
    1b. jews
    1c. blacks
    2. mass genocide
    3. consolidation of the worst parts of capitalism

  29. Indigo says:

    It would be nice to see time line projections on that. Is this happening by mid-century? or is this a projection for the end of the century? or is this another one of those “eventually,” maybe 500 years from now stories? It’s serious enough to erase the gee-whiz and scare tactics and come back down to earth where the problem is real.

  30. Indigo says:

    and get the Cosmic Turtle’s back wet? Oh, no!

  31. Bob Munck says:

    When there have been sufficient disasters with major loss of life and property that it is clear to EVERYBODY* that global warming is real — and people begin looking for someone to blame, the following will happen:

    1. Complete destruction of the conservative branch of the GOP and its fellow-travelers around the world. Torches and pitchforks will be a real possibility.

    2. Reduction of the Republican Party to fringe-party status. (Unless demographics does that first; both are unstoppable.)

    3. Discrediting of capitalism, at least unfettered capitalism.

    4. I don’t know what will happen to the fossil fuel industry. Since the corporations that make it up are now officially people, perhaps Texas and Oklahoma will begin holding corporate executions.

    *by EVERYBODY I mean all those still in at least tenuous contact with reality. Obviously some of the more extreme, tea-party types won’t accept it even as the water closes over their heads.

  32. Bill_Perdue says:

    Why are you trying to shift the blame? The rich who pollute with abandon and the political prostitutes who service them are criminals.

    Where is your proof that American voters are ‘semi-literate constituencies’. Or that they have any semblance of control over their political masters or the rich? Or that votes count?

  33. Demosthenes says:

    Amazing dilemma. The fossil fuel industry has successfully converted this into a partisan issue. The GOP and it’s media (Fox “News”, talk radio, NRO, etc.) peddle this disinformation and the “base” buys it. Moreover, the GOP politicans, who take huge sums of money in “contributions” from the fossil fuel industry are either so ignorant of afraid of being primaried that they stop any meaningful action.

    And people wonder why unlimited money in politics is dangerous?

  34. 4th Turning says:

    I keep wondering if the 2nd dark age will begin with the collapse of the internet…

  35. 4th Turning says:

    Are you completely unwilling to hold their semi-literate constituencies even the least bit
    At some point individuals have to take responsibility-or go down with the ship.

  36. BeccaM says:

    What will it take? Ozone-depleting chemicals and aerosols were a hard sell because there were entrenched moneyed interests fighting against any change in their habits.

    We have an entire civilization that as yet is mostly addicted to burning carbon. While there are promising signs in some areas of clean alternative energy development, there nevertheless remains trillions of dollars worth of influence on the side of “Let’s keep burning!”

    I fear what it will take is the collapse of human civilization for us to stop.

  37. Drew2u says:

    Ice cores hold the history of our ancient past; save as many ice cores as we can!

  38. Peter says:

    Well, for the wealthy it doesn’t matter, they will use their money to make their lives comfortable, and the rest of the masses are the ones to suffer. It is interesting having recently watched Elysium, I could actually see that as a future home for the 1%.

  39. Bill_Perdue says:

    Given all these facts and projections the right wing continues to insist on dangerous moves that further degrade global ecosystems. “As carbon dioxide emissions increase, the temperature should continue to rise. … The twenty-year variant would mean brutal changes not for our great-grandchildren but for most of today’s population. As the Guardian summarized congressional testimony by leading climate scientists, ‘Drought, wildfires, hurricanes and heatwaves are becoming normal in America because of climate change, Congress was told on Wednesday in the first hearing on climate science in more than two years.’ There was bipartisan agreement only on one essential point-there is no prospect for any kind of climate legislation in the foreseeable future.”

    Far from changing their destructive policies, Democrats and Republicans are getting worse. They are making the ‘Great Accelerator’ move even faster. Both parties in Congress and the WH endorse massive increases in fracking and offshore drilling and soon they’ll authorized the Keystone extension over the Ogallala Aquifer, and they’re doing nothing real to stop air pollution.

    Because of their inaction many will die. They’re criminals.

  40. 4th Turning says:

    If not here, someone needs to create an interactive website where we can go to click on what is
    already being done realistically in our respective parts of the country to address change-not the bogus
    reassurance of “captains” now first to abandon ship-or this kind of crap-“Some of the residents present at the meeting thought the plan and its projections too conservative. My feeling is that the additional tax burden on our residents is not warranted at this juncture. The plan presented by the engineer consultants allows for continued monitoring and evaluation and provides ample opportunity to address unanticipated issues should they arise, and will require us to raise taxes only if and when needed, rather than today.”http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jerry-libbin/its-common-sense-miami-be_b_1880667.html

  41. cole3244 says:

    when you prepare for any contingency you should always assume the worst case scenario.

  42. cole3244 says:

    i have been an atheist for 51 years, the religious zealots who fall back on faith as their reason to dispute science and facts have doomed humans to the eventual demise that we have earned as a species.

    we have lost the benefit of the doubt its just too bad other innocent species will have to pay the price along with us.

  43. Houndentenor says:

    Oil money bribery derangement syndrome a/k/a greed.

  44. Houndentenor says:

    Personally I think the Greenland one is the scariest. If that slides off into the North Atlantic and shuts off the Gulf Stream….

  45. TheOriginalLiz says:

    My favorite ones are those who equate climate change that happens over 100 (or fewer) years with climate change that happens over 100,000 years.

    I really think that in the future (should we survive) republicanism is going to be discovered to be caused by some fundamental brain defect that limits reasoning ability.

  46. Dave of the Jungle says:

    No problem. If the water level gets too high, it will just spill over the edge of the earth and make a nice waterfall.

  47. AndyinChicago says:

    I think it’s dangerous to always list worst case scenario, especially when best case scenario is scary enough. If we have 3.5 meters of ocean depth increase, doubters will point out that science said it was 4 and feel they have credence. I know you warn against being conservative in estimates, but I think it’s dangerous to be too speculative.

  48. S_in_Tokyo says:

    “The big one is the East Antarcticic ice sheet — almost 65 meters worth of water — but there plenty in Greenland and the rest of West Australia as well.”

    Well, I think we can probably tell what you _meant_ to write …

  49. emjayay says:

    Not to worry. According to hundreds of often very long and detailed posts by people who aren’t scientists at Yahoo! News, it’s all mere speculation and will never happen.

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