September 7, 2014, by Tim Radford
Glacial meltwater is a key factor in the sea level rise in Antarctica
Image Jason Auch via Wikimedia Commons
Researchers in the UK have established that billions of tonnes of fresh water from melting glaciers are causing Antarctic sea levels to rise much higher and faster than the global average. LONDON, 7 September, 2014 − Sea levels around Antarctica are rising faster than anywhere else in the southern ocean. The global average rise in ocean heights in the last 19 years has been 6cms, but the rise in seas around Antarctica is 2cms higher. This seemingly counter-intuitive finding is certainly a consequence of melting ice in the Southern Ocean, but the connection with global warming is, for the moment, tenuous. The agency that is behind the rising sea levels is simply an excess of fresh water from melting glaciers − about 350 billion tonnes of it. “Fresh water is less dense than salt water, and so in regions where an excess of fresh water has accumulated we expect a localised rise in sea level,” says Craig Rye, an oceanography researcher at of the University of Southampton in the UK, who, with colleagues, has published the findings in Nature Geoscience. Partly because the oceans are warmer and are therefore expanding, and partly because the terrestrial glaciers are in retreat, global sea levels on average have crept up by about 3 millimetres a year. Waters off the Antarctic shelf seem to be gaining an additional 2mm a year.
The scientists studied satellite scans of a region of more than a million square kilometres to make their finding, and used ship-based studies of the Antarctic sea water to confirm that is has become less saline. The melting of the Antarctic ice sheet – German scientists recently calculated that around 125 cubic kilometres of meltwater is running off the continent each year − and the thinning of the floating ice shelves is enough to explain the unexpected rise. Computer model studies confirm the interpretation that the rise is happening because the southern seas have just got fresher. The consequences in the longer term are uncertain. Rye, a postgraduate researcher, said: “The interaction between air, sea and ice in these seas is central to the stability of the Antarctic ice sheet and global sea levels, as well as other environmental processes, such as the generation of Antarctic bottom water, which cools and ventilates much of the global ocean abyss.” – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.