Ancient Antarctic ice grim predictions for future melting

The clock is ticking ...
13 February 2024


A floating iceberg.


Evidence that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet shrank dramatically at the end of the last Ice Age, which occurred around 8000 years ago, has been revealed by scientists at the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS)...

Their experiments show the ice melted at a rapid - or "runaway" - rate as the Ice Age ended, providing us with a possible chilling insight into what climate change and global warming might have in store for us.

“What we’ve been able to show is that this evidence suggests that runaway melting has occurred in the past and, therefore, could happen again in the future. We could see rapid loss of ice,” Isobel Rowell, from the BAS, told the Naked Scientists.

Rowell and her colleagues found signs of the temperature runaway written into a huge column of ice extracted from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Analysis of air bubbles trapped inside the ice revealed its age and the world's temperature profile at the time each layer of the ice was laid down. 

Alarmingly, the results show that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted rapidly over a period of just a few hundred years before ultimately stabilising again although only when global temperatures cooled. So could history repeat itself? It really matters because, if the ice sheet were to break apart permanently and melt, a collapse of that magnitude would pump massive volumes of fresh water into the sea, altering ocean currents and pushing up sea level with environmental and coastal consequences worldwide.

“By understanding how quickly this can change, how quickly the ice sheet can melt, it really puts emphasis on how quickly we need to be doing something about climate change, and really doing something about carbon emissions. It’s really as simple as that,” Rowell concludes.