Will we enter another ice age?

There are a number of web and news articles around surrounding the question of whether or not we will enter another ice age. Many of these questions arise from the idea that a collapse or significant melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet will produce enough fresh water to shut down the global thermohaline circulation, dropping us into a new ice age in the next 10,000 years.

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Is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsing?

Marine ice sheet instability

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is the world’s most vulnerable ice sheet. This is because it is grounded below sea level, and marine ice sheets such as these are susceptible to rapid melting at their base. Fast-flowing ice streams draining the WAIS (Pine Island Glacier and Thwaites Glacier in particular) into the Amundsen Sea have a grounding line on a reverse bed slope, becoming deeper inland. Recession of the grounding line means that the ice stream is grounded in deeper water, with a greater ice thickness. Stable grounding lines cannot be established on these reverse bed slopes1, because ice thickness is a key factor in controlling ice flux across the grounding line. Thicker ice in deeper water drives increased calving, increased ice discharge, and further grounding-line recession in a positive feedback loop2, 3.  This process is called Marine Ice Sheet Instability4.

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Sea level rise over the next 2000 years

A new paper by Levermann et al. in PNAS uses the record of past rates of sea level rise from palaeo archives and numerical computer models to understand how much sea level rise we can expect per degree of warming in the future. These data suggest that we can expect a global sea level rise of 2.3 m per 1°C of warming within the next 2000 years: well within societal timeframes. A 2°C of warming would result in a global sea level rise of 4.8 m within 2000 years. This would inundate many coastal cities in Europe alone, and cause untold economic and societal damage.

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Antarctic ice shelves – the hidden villain

Sea ice and ice shelves

What is sea ice? Sea ice is frozen sea water; it perennially expands and contracts during each year’s winter and summer. Amongst the sea ice are icebergs calved from tidewater glaciers and ice shelves. Melting sea ice does not contribute directly to sea level rise (ice floats and displaces the same volume of water), but sea ice is important because it enhances climate warming. It changes the reflectivity of the sea water, reflecting lots of sunlight back (it has a high albedo), and is therefore an important component of the climate and cryospheric (icey) system.
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Arctic Sea Ice

The Arctic’s sea ice extent reached an all-time low in September 2012, with the smallest recorded extent since satellite observations began. At 3.42 million square kilometres, it may still sound large, but this small extent of Arctic sea ice could have profound long-term consequences, and it follows a long trend of low sea ice conditions. Sea ice extent has been decreasing over the past 4-5 decades (Kinnard et al., 2011), and sea ice extent is now about 2 million square kilometres less than it was during the late twentieth century. Continue reading