Study: further melting of Antarctic glacier half the size of Germany is 'irreversible'

An international group of researchers has found that the largest glacier in West Antarctica is "retreating inland" faster than ever.

In this week’s New Statesman I wrote about the misadventures of the MV Akademik Shokalskiy, the research vessel trapped in ice off the shore of Antarctica, and why “one localised incident does not disprove the vast body of evidence demonstrating that the world is heating up, decade by decade”.

There’s been an increase in the amount of ice in the sea around Antarctica, which - compared to the continually-shrinking ice in the Arctic - reassures sceptics that they were right about this climate change brouhaha all along. But, of course, that’s not the case at all. The ice on the land (the ice that, when it melts, raises sea levels) is decreasing, and while sea ice is increasing, that’s probably because the run-off from the land is diluting the sea, raising its freezing point.

Categorising that melt is difficult, as, compared to the Arctic, Antarctica is much more massive and much less well-documented landmass with a wider range of climates. As an example, a new study in Nature Climate Science has found that the Pine Island Glacier, in West Antarctica, has found that it may have entered an “irreversible” melting period where the amount of water it unloads into the ocean increases five-fold.

The 175,000km2 glacier - that’s about half as big as Germany - is responsible for draining a quarter of the West Antarctica ice sheet by itself, and regularly calves off huge icebergs into the Southern Ocean. The Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) British Antarctic Survey has found that it’s “retreating inland”, a sign that its melt is increasing. It’s bad news. Very bad.

Here’s the NERC’s news site, Planet Earth Online:

'At the Pine Island Glacier we have seen that not only is more ice flowing from the glacier into the ocean, but it's also flowing faster across the grounding line - the boundary between the grounded ice and the floating ice. We also can see this boundary is migrating further inland,' says Dr G Hilmar Gudmundsson from NERC's British Antarctic Survey, a researcher on the project.

All the models agreed that the Pine Island Glacier has become unstable, and will continue to retreat for tens of kilometres.

'The Pine Island Glacier shows the biggest changes in this area at the moment, but if it is unstable it may have implications for the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet,' says Gudmundsson. 'Currently we see around two millimetres of sea level rise a year, and the Pine Island Glacier retreat could contribute an additional 3.5 - 5 millimeters in the next twenty years, so it would lead to a considerable increase from this area alone. But the potential is much larger.'

A doomsday scenario, where the entire West Antarctica ice sheet melted away, would cause a sea level rise of five metres. That’s not what’s being forecast here, but the level of melt is illustrative of a crucial threat to the world from climate change - even if we were to stop producing gases that cause the net warming effect today, many of their effects are now locked-in and inevitable.

A 30-mile-long iceberg calving off Pine Island Glacier, in 2011. (Photo: NASA)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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In your 30s? You missed out on £26,000 and you're not even protesting

The 1980s kids seem resigned to their fate - for now. 

Imagine you’re in your thirties, and you’re renting in a shared house, on roughly the same pay you earned five years ago. Now imagine you have a friend, also in their thirties. This friend owns their own home, gets pay rises every year and has a more generous pension to beat. In fact, they are twice as rich as you. 

When you try to talk about how worried you are about your financial situation, the friend shrugs and says: “I was in that situation too.”

Un-friend, right? But this is, in fact, reality. A study from the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that Brits in their early thirties have a median wealth of £27,000. But ten years ago, a thirty something had £53,000. In other words, that unbearable friend is just someone exactly the same as you, who is now in their forties. 

Not only do Brits born in the early 1980s have half the wealth they would have had if they were born in the 1970s, but they are the first generation to be in this position since World War II.  According to the IFS study, each cohort has got progressively richer. But then, just as the 1980s kids were reaching adulthood, a couple of things happened at once.

House prices raced ahead of wages. Employers made pensions less generous. And, at the crucial point that the 1980s kids were finding their feet in the jobs market, the recession struck. The 1980s kids didn’t manage to buy homes in time to take advantage of low mortgage rates. Instead, they are stuck paying increasing amounts of rent. 

If the wealth distribution between someone in their 30s and someone in their 40s is stark, this is only the starting point in intergenerational inequality. The IFS expects pensioners’ incomes to race ahead of workers in the coming decade. 

So why, given this unprecedented reversal in fortunes, are Brits in their early thirties not marching in the streets? Why are they not burning tyres outside the Treasury while shouting: “Give us out £26k back?” 

The obvious fact that no one is going to be protesting their granny’s good fortune aside, it seems one reason for the 1980s kids’ resignation is they are still in denial. One thirty something wrote to The Staggers that the idea of being able to buy a house had become too abstract to worry about. Instead:

“You just try and get through this month and then worry about next month, which is probably self-defeating, but I think it's quite tough to get in the mindset that you're going to put something by so maybe in 10 years you can buy a shoebox a two-hour train ride from where you actually want to be.”

Another reflected that “people keep saying ‘something will turn up’”.

The Staggers turned to our resident thirty something, Yo Zushi, for his thoughts. He agreed with the IFS analysis that the recession mattered:

"We were spoiled by an artificially inflated balloon of cheap credit and growing up was something you did… later. Then the crash came in 2007-2008, and it became something we couldn’t afford to do. 

I would have got round to becoming comfortably off, I tell myself, had I been given another ten years of amoral capitalist boom to do so. Many of those who were born in the early 1970s drifted along, took a nap and woke up in possession of a house, all mod cons and a decent-paying job. But we slightly younger Gen X-ers followed in their slipstream and somehow fell off the edge. Oh well. "

Will the inertia of the1980s kids last? Perhaps – but Zushi sees in the support for Jeremy Corbyn, a swell of feeling at last. “Our lack of access to the life we were promised in our teens has woken many of us up to why things suck. That’s a good thing. 

“And now we have Corbyn to help sort it all out. That’s not meant sarcastically – I really think he’ll do it.”