By Laura Barron-Lopez - 05/13/14 11:09 AM EDT
A rapidly melting section of the Antarctic has "passed the point of no return," according to NASA.
A new study, which incorporates 40 years of observations, says the glaciers in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet region are on an "irreversible" path toward decline, threatening to drastically increase sea levels.
Researchers from NASA and the University of California, Irvine, said in a statement on Monday that this specific glacial region will be a major contributor to sea level rise in the coming decades and centuries.
NASA estimates that the Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 4 feet, and is melting faster than scientists previously thought.
"The collapse of this sector of West Antarctica appears to be unstoppable," lead author and glaciologist for NASA and UC Irvine Eric Rignot said. "The fact that the retreat is happening simultaneously over a large sector suggests it was triggered by a common cause, such as an increase in the amount of ocean heat beneath the floating sections of the glaciers."
"At this point, the end of this sector appears to be inevitable," he added.
The evidence pointing toward the glaciers' inevitable demise, NASA states, is the change in their flow speeds, how much each glacier floats on the seawater, and the slope of the terrain they are flowing over.
Glaciers that used to sit solidly on land are now floating, according to they study.
The findings are supported by separate study set to be published May 16 in the journal Science. And the NASA/UC Irvine study has been accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
This latest study comes on the heels of the Obama administration's release of its third national climate report, which cited sea level rise as one of the top impacts of climate change that the U.S. will be facing in years to come.