A total of 28 trillion tonnes of ice have disappeared from the surface of the Earth since 1994. That is the conclusion of UK scientists who have analyzed satellite surveys of the planet’s poles, mountains and glaciers to measure how much ice coverage has been lost because of global heating triggered by rising greenhouse gas emissions.
The scientists — based at the universities of Leeds and Edinburgh, and University College London — described the level of ice loss as “staggering” and said that their analysis indicates that sea level rises, triggered by melting glaciers and ice sheets, could reach 1m by the end of the century.
“To put that in context, every centimeter of sea level rise means about a million people will be displaced from their low-lying homelands,” said professor Andy Shepherd, director of the University of Leeds’ Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.
The scientists also said that the melting of ice in these quantities is seriously reducing the planet’s ability to reflect solar radiation back into space.
White ice is disappearing and the dark sea or soil exposed beneath it is absorbing more and more heat, further increasing the warming of the planet.
In addition, cold fresh water pouring from melting glaciers and ice sheets is causing major disruptions to the biological health of Arctic and Antarctic waters, while loss of glaciers in mountain ranges threatens to wipe out sources of fresh water on which local communities depend.
“In the past, researchers have studied individual areas — such as the Antarctic or Greenland — where ice is melting, but this is the first time anyone has looked at all the ice that is disappearing from the entire planet,” Shepherd said. “What we have found has stunned us.”
The level of ice loss revealed by the group matches the worst-case-scenario predictions outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, he added.
The group studied satellite surveys of glaciers in South America, Asia, Canada and other regions; sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic; ice sheets that cover the ground in Antarctica and Greenland; and ice shelves that protrude from the Antarctic mainland into the sea. The study covered the years 1994 to 2017.
The researchers’ conclusion is that all the regions have suffered devastating reductions in ice cover in the past three decades and that these losses are continuing.
“To put the losses we’ve already experienced into context, 28 trillion tonnes of ice would cover the entire surface of the UK with a sheet of frozen water that is 100m thick,” said Tom Slater, a research fellow from Leeds who is part of the group. “It’s just mind-blowing.”
“There can be little doubt that the vast majority of Earth’s ice loss is a direct consequence of climate warming,” the group said in their review paper, which was published in the online journal Cryosphere Discussions.
“On average, the planetary surface temperature has risen by 0.85°C since 1880, and this signal has been amplified in the polar regions,” they said.
Sea and atmospheric temperatures have risen as a result, and the resulting double whammy has triggered the catastrophic ice losses uncovered by the group.
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