West Antarctica Warming Twice As Fast As Previously Thought, Research Finds, May Speed Up Sea Level Rise

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New research has revealed that West Antarctica is actually warming nearly two times faster than was previously thought. This finding suggests, therefore, that sea levels may rise much faster than was previously predicted.


The average annual temperatures in West Antarctica, at the Byrd research station, have increased an incredible 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3F) in the years since the 1950s. This is one of the quickest increases in temperature in the world — it’s currently 3 times the global average increase.

This finding adds strong support to the theory that the ice sheet is much more vulnerable to melting than was previously thought. If West Antarctica was to melt, it would raise global sea levels by at least 3.3 meters (11 feet). It’s currently thought that it would take a few centuries for it to melt completely.

“The western part of the ice sheet is experiencing nearly twice as much warming as previously thought,” Ohio State University said in a recent statement by its geography professor David Bromwich.

The higher than thought warming “raises further concerns about the future contribution of Antarctica to sea level rise,” it said. “Higher summer temperatures raised risks of a surface melt of ice and snow even though most of Antarctica is in a year-round deep freeze.”

Very low-lying countries, such as Bangladesh and many pacific islands, are very vulnerable to near-future levels of sea rise. As are many globally important cities, such as London, New York City, and Buenos Aires. So far, sea levels have increased by about 8 inches in the past hundred or so years.

“The United Nations panel of climate experts projects that sea levels will rise by between 18 and 59 cms (7-24 inches) this century, and by more if a thaw of Greenland and Antarctica accelerates, due to global warming caused by human activities,” Reuters reports.

“The rise in temperatures in the remote region was comparable to that on the Antarctic Peninsula to the north, which snakes up towards South America, according to the U.S.-based experts writing in the journal Nature Geoscience.”

Some glaciated areas of the northern hemisphere have been warming at very significant rates also.

There have been numerous significant collapses of Antarctic ice shelves in the past few years. As these ice shelves collapse and disintegrate, the glaciers that they had previously held in place in the inlands speed up their slide faster into the ocean, which then contributes to sea level rise.


“The stakes would be much higher if a similar event occurred to an ice shelf restraining one of the enormous West Antarctic ice sheet glaciers,” said Andrew Monaghan, a co-author at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research.

The researchers note that there has already been one instance of a very large surface melt of West Antarctica that occurred in 2005. “A continued rise in summer temperatures could lead to more frequent and extensive episodes of surface melting,” they wrote.

Reuters adds:

“West Antarctica now contributes about 0.3 mm a year to sea level rise, less than Greenland’s 0.7 mm, Ohio State University said. The bigger East Antarctic ice sheet is less vulnerable to a thaw.

“Helped by computer simulations, the scientists reconstructed a record of temperatures stretching back to 1958 at Byrd, where about a third of the measurements were missing, sometimes because of power failures in the long Antarctic winters.”

Source: Reuters
Image Credits: NASA; NASA image by Robert Simmon, based on data from Joey Comiso, GSFC

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

James Ayre has 4830 posts and counting. See all posts by James Ayre

4 thoughts on “West Antarctica Warming Twice As Fast As Previously Thought, Research Finds, May Speed Up Sea Level Rise

  • It is unfortunate that the major contributors to the global warming besides the US are countries that do not need to adhere to the Koyota accord. Namely China and India. While the US has slowly been reducing it’s production of CO2 and Methane, China and India have greatly increased their importation of coal and this will continue to have adverse effects on our world’s temperature.

    • China is capping its coal use in 2015. At the same time they are installing large amounts of wind and solar generation. They have shut down a very large number of inefficient coal plants.

      India is ramping up its wind and solar. India wants to cut their coal and oil inputs and is starting to see renewables as a way to do so.

      India has now installed over one million small solar systems and is continuing to install at the rate of 1,000 per day. This sounds impressive, but it’s just the beginning as it is now limited to only one small geographical portion of the country.

      These micro-solar installations replace kerosene for home lighting in millions of homes not connected to the grid. Kerosene not only produces CO2 but also carbon black which is contributing to Arctic and glacier ice loss.

      And the US Senate did not ratify the Kyoto accord.

  • What happens when the West Antarctic ice shelf actually shears off? Do they have any simulations for the ripple effect that will have on the earths crust? Japan and Indonesia will look like a day at the beach by comparison.

    • I think these ice shelves are already floating so if they break off there will be no tidal wave or increase in ocean levels.

      The problem arises from the ice behind them no longer being held in place by the ice shelves and that ground-based ice can start moving faster into the ocean.

      Based on the limited data of only the most recent years it appears that Greenland melting is happening much faster than expected. We are quite close to summer meltouts of the sea ice which will mean a lot more energy will get directed to melting land-based ice. If we also start seeing a lot of Antarctic land ice moving into the water then sea levels are going to be coming up much faster than we want to deal with.

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