Story at a glance

  • A new study on ice shelves in the Antarctic was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters on Thursday.
  • The study was conducted through the University of Reading.
  • It found that one-third of ice shelves are at risk of collapsing if temperatures hit 4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

A new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters found that one-third of ice shelves surrounding Antarctica could collapse if temperatures hit 4 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, resulting in “unimaginable amounts” of water being released into the sea. 

Ice shelves, which are vast floating sheets of ice that connect to land, largely surround Antarctica.


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“Ice shelves are important buffers, preventing glaciers on land from flowing freely into the ocean and contributing to sea level rise,” Ella Gilbert, a research scientist in the University of Reading’s meteorology department who co-authored the study, said. “When they collapse it’s like a giant cork being removed from a bottle, allowing unimaginable amounts of water from glaciers to pour into the sea.”

One-third of these ice shelves is about the equivalent of half a million square kilometers. The surge in water from their collapse would cause sea levels to rise.

The study doesn’t cite an estimate of the level of rise if could cause, but Gilbert said, “My gut feeling is for 4C it could potentially contribute tens of centimetres if they did collapse.”

To put this in perspective, NASA calculates the average sea level rise at 3.3 millimeters per year, which only equals 0.33 centimeters, making even a 10-centimeter increase a significant jump.

A rise in sea levels contributes to the erosion of coastlines, more powerful storms and flooding, and the destruction of ecosystems and habitats for animals both on land and in the sea. 

The study is meant to highlight the need for limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees C above preindustrial levels, as outlined in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Former President Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement on June 1, 2017. President Biden signed an executive order having the U.S. rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day in office.

“If temperatures continue to rise at current rates we may lose more Antarctic ice shelves in the coming decades,” Gilbert said. “Limiting warming will not just be good for Antarctica – preserving ice shelves means less global sea level rise, and that’s good for us all.”


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Published on Apr 09, 2021