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.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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