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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.