Antarctica - EDITORIAL Lukewarm response to Antarctica's shrinking ice mass
SCIENTISTS have long been closely tracking developments in Antarctica, the world's only continent that is almost entirely blanketed in ice. The monitoring is critical because what happens in Antarctica impacts the entire planet.
Antarctica's ice sheets shrink during the warm summer months and expand when winter sets in. That cycle has been undisturbed for millennia.
Not anymore. Climate change has disrupted the natural order, and the world is beginning to suffer the consequences.
An unprecedented rise in global temperatures spawned by fossil fuel burning is melting Antarctica's ice sheets at a rate that prevents them from regrowing.
The Antarctic ice mass has been retreating at an accelerating rate. A recent study found that more than 40 percent of Antarctica's ice shelves have contracted in just over two decades. That could mean the continent lost 7.5 trillion tons of ice between 1997 and 2021.
"We expected most ice shelves to go through cycles of rapid but short-lived shrinking, then to regrow slowly. Instead, we see that almost half of them are shrinking with no sign of recovery," one climate scientist lamented.
Another study a month earlier warned that Antarctica could be warming at almost twice the rate of the rest of the world and faster than climate crisis models are predicting.
The water from the melting ice could drastically alter sea currents, which are the natural conduits for circulating heat and transporting nutrients around the world.
Since 1992, the thawing ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland have contributed a 2.1-centimeter rise to the global sea level, according to one estimate.
The oceans also have another critical function — they serve as a vast carbon sink, trapping more than 90 percent of the heat from greenhouse gases released by factories, vehicles and other human-generated sources. But the oceans can only absorb so much heat. Unable to take in more, sea temperatures have begun to rise.
Warming seawater is a death sentence for many species of fish and coral. It also fuels the formation of more extreme weather events like typhoons, cyclones and hurricanes.
The awesome power of Super Typhoon "Yolanda" has been attributed to the warming of the Pacific Ocean. And Yolanda is just a preview of what lies ahead — more severe storms that will come in quick succession as the world's biggest body of water continues to heat up.
Fed by melting ice, rising sea levels also threaten coastal habitats and cause forced migration, destructive erosion and flooding further inland.
In one apocalyptic scenario, a meltdown of all of the Earth's glaciers and ice sheets would raise the ocean level by 216 feet. If that happens, many Pacific island nations will disappear. It could also wipe out the entire Manila Bay seafront and radically change the landscape of Metro Manila.
It's just a scenario for now, but scientists say it could become a reality if the world continues to burn fossil fuels indiscriminately.
Efforts to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius have been an epic fail so far. Environmental summits have done little to move forward the goal set by the Paris Agreement of 2015, tied down by unfulfilled promises by the countries that had the financial capability but lacked the political will to spearhead climate action.
There is also little concern about the fate of economically struggling nations that will be most vulnerable to the fallout from the Antarctic ice loss.
"We should be deeply concerned about the environment of Antarctica in the years that are coming under continued fossil fuel burning," noted Prof. Martin Siegert of the University of Exeter, a co-author of one of the recent studies on Antarctic ice loss. "This is the most extreme natural laboratory on the planet. Our ability to measure and observe is very difficult... but we really must try harder to understand the processes that are causing these extreme events and their interconnectivity."
Finding as much scientific information as we can about what is happening in Antarctica can help build a consensus to take collective action before we reach the tipping point when the trend becomes irreversible.
The clock is ticking.