Arctic & Antarctica
Lauren Simkins / University of Virginia

World - To Predict the Future of Polar Ice, Environmental Scientists Are Looking to the Past

Over the past century, global sea level has been rising at an increasingly rapid pace.

That means the damage done by storm surges will be more severe, coastal erosion will accelerate and flooding will become more frequent and more expensive.

But one of the most troubling things about that trend is that current models for predicting future sea-level rise are missing critical pieces of information—key factors that could help us better prepare for effects of rising seas on our communities and our economy.

A new study by geologist Lauren Simkins, a University of Virginia environmental sciences professor, however, suggests that she and her colleagues, who describe themselves as "glacial geologists," have discovered a way to test important variables in the equation that could make those models much better at predicting how much sea levels will rise—and how fast.

While a warming climate will contribute to a continued rise in global sea level by melting land-based glaciers and ice sheets that cover Antarctica and much of Greenland, the models scientists use to predict how quickly the ice will melt involve some guesswork about what's happening under those massive ice structures as they move across the terrain beneath them.

"The way we chose to approach this problem," Simkins said, "was to look at the geological record and the glacial landforms that were formed by now-extinct ice sheets or sectors of ice sheets that no longer exist. There we can see very clearly the signature of ice flow, the pattern of retreat and what the terrain looks like."

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Read also Exceptions to bed-controlled ice sheet flow and retreat from glaciated continental margins worldwide, Sarah L. Greenwood et al., Jan. 13, 2021