Later this year, world leaders will come together for the United Nations to discuss how to save the planet from catastrophic climate change. New research out of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute gives them another metric to see exactly how much is at stake. A paperpublished in October predicts that the surface melting of ice shelves in Antarctica will double by 2050—whether or not emissions change. But by 2100, our climate policy decisions will be the difference between the Antarctic ice shelves disappearing into the sea or not.
Ice shelves are massive, floating plateaus of frozen seawater that jut out from the continent and function as blockades, holding back the giant continental ice sheets. In their absence, the glaciers on the continent would accelerate their march into the sea. According to the research, under a business-as-usual emissions scenario, the next 85 years of warming could bring a melt rate high enough to trigger the loss of ice shelves across the continent. “Imagine you have a sink full of water, and you remove the drain plug. The ice shelves are the drain plug,” explains Luke Trusel, a glaciologist at Woods Hole and lead author on the study.
Trusel and his colleagues found that if emissions continue at the current pace, Antarctica’s ice shelves would be losing around 600 gigatons of melt water per year by 2100. “That’s the equivalent of eight years of Niagara Falls running continuously,” he says. “We’re talking about a completely different Antarctica.” At that point, the melt rate would be at or above the point where ice shelves have historically destabilized and collapsed, like the Larsen A and Larsen B shelves, which collapsed abruptly in 1995 and 2002, respectively, shocking researchers.