New Study Shows West Antarctic Ice Sheet Warming Rapidly

Rapid warming is observed in the central West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Image credit: Ohio State University

One of the major concerns of climate change is the potential increase in sea level resulting from the melting of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets.

New research from a team of scientists at Ohio State University, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, suggests that levels of warming in the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) are much higher than previously thought.

Climate Change, Ice Sheets, and Rising Sea Levels

Many agencies have reported the increasing loss of Arctic sea: the NOAA’s 2012 Arctic Report Card refers to “record low snow extent and low sea ice extent occurred in June and September, respectively.”

But although loss of sea ice has implications for climate, it’s melting of the ice caps which is the major contributor to sea level rise, as water which has been locked up in the form of ice (the cryosphere) is released into the sea.

The WAIS is already significant in this respect. “It contributes about 0.3 mm/year to current sea level rise, roughly 10% of the total,” the study’s lead author Professor David Bromwich told Decoded Science. “Our results suggest that in a few decades West Antarctica could contribute significantly more to sea level rise than today as a consequence of the impact of much greater ice shelf melting (at low elevations).

Ice Sheets Melting: Key Findings of the Study

Because of the hostile nature of the terrain, there is a scarcity of long-term climate data in the WAIS: the study notes that “assessing Antarctic climate change on timescales of a few decades is a well-recognized challenge.” The researchers assessed available data from the WAIS’s Byrd Station and used various statistical techniques to correct existing data and produce a data series covering 56 years.

The results show that the WAIS is warming, especially during the southern hemisphere summer, at a rate which is among the highest on the plant. “ observations have a broad spatial relevance,” said Professor Bromwich. “There are no comparable weather observations in the area that cover anything like 50 years. For very recent times, there are a number of sites around Byrd Station that show good agreement with its data. Our results confirm findings … from extrapolation of distant observations but give much larger warming rates.

Global Warming? Implications for the Future

Inhospitable terrain limits meteorological data records. Image credit: Henry Brecher, Ohio State University

The research did not reach any conclusions about the causes of the warming, though the study notes that warming during the late 1980s coincided with changes in atmospheric pressure systems and a decrease in summer sea ice, the data failed to produce any clear evidence to link warming to these changes.

The warming patterns established as a result of the enhanced data do, however, provide strong support for a further program of research in future.

Our research suggests that surface melting could become much more important in the future with important impacts on the ice sheet’s contribution to sea level, as mentioned above,” said Professor Bromwich.

And, as the study concludes, the results “argue for a robust long-term meteorological observation network in the region.


Bromwich, D.H. et al. Central West Antarctica among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth. (2012). Nature Geoscience. Accessed December 23, 2012.

NOAA. Arctic report card: Update for 2012. (2012). Accessed December 23, 2012

© Copyright 2012 Jennifer Young, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. says

    I am of the opinion that investing heavily in turning desert areas green will be the most effective way to protect low lying coastal regions from the threat of rising ocean levels. A carbon tax will not work quickly enough to reduce a general Global Warming trend but plants are both a carbon as well as a water sink. It is theoretically possible to divert as much water into the water tables of desert nations as is melting off the WAIS and Greenland.

  2. Craig Hill says

    There’s no maybe about your prejudicial looniness in rejecting the evidence that the poles are melting faster than can be attributed to any other source than the gross stupidity of humans, of which evidence you provide a typical dollop.

  3. Al Bore says

    Well do the math Jack. Why don’t the millions of people in the global scientific community ACT like it’s a climate crisis on the way? They exaggerated and real planet lovers welcome the good news of no crisis. It wasn’t about trusting science it was about asking the scientists why they have never any crisis “WILL” happen, only might and could and….. And it’s been 26 years.
    Not one IPCC warning is without “could bes”

  4. Jack Wolf says

    I noticed several years ago that most climate change reports and scientific papers use a less than realistic emission scenarios in their calculations. Since these emissions are long lived, this has led to a deepening concern about the climate situation and it’s impacts today, in my lifetime, now.

    This important talk by Dr. Anderson at this year’s Cabot Lecture clearly points the finger at scientists for not accurately reporting how bad the climate situation is. He also explains why we cannot meet the 2 degree C (3.8 F) target set by the world’s government and its impacts on us today. His talk is timely in light of this week’s paper from the World Bank that found:

    “Even with the current mitigation pledges fully implemented, there is roughly a 20% likelihood of exceeding 4°C by 2100. If they are not met, warming of 4°C could occur as early as the 2060s.”

    Globally, we are nowhere close to meeting our mitigation pledges and long lived CO2 emissions continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at an accelerating rate.

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