The snowy landmass that we once knew and loved as Antarctica is disappearing. Gigantic glaciers are being warmed and beginning to become susceptible to collapsing. We humans are a direct cause of this phenomenon as we provide a warmer climate, leading to warmer sea water and the lack of sufficient albedo. Albedo is the amount of electromagnetic radiation that reflects away from the earth, compared to the amount that gets absorbed. Since ice has a high albedo, and under normal, pre-climate change conditions, it would reflect solar radiation back into the atmosphere. But that is now changing.
A staggering 250 billion tons of ice per year have been lost in recent years according to research conducted in 2000. Research shows that this trend has increased dramatically since 1979. With this trend threatening to continue, we may no longer be able to have Antarctic glaciers; losing them would cause a mass extinction of many polar animals.
At the rate we are going, researchers have implied that the West Antarctic ice shelves will soon reach “climate tipping points”, and thus will crumble. A climate tipping point is a specific climate threshold that exists. Pushing our boundaries with this threshold will lead to serious changes within the ecosystem including, but not limited to, the extinction of animals, rising sea levels, and a lack of albedo. Based on a climate model, Antarctic circumpolar current will circulate with the pre-existing cold current to make a mixture of warm water which will collapse ice shelves. As snow accumulates, the ice flow will head into a downward slope because of the warm air influence, thereby making these ice shelves melt and crumble. If global warming continues at this rate, sea level is expected to rise to more than 3 feet by 2100, followed by a whopping 50 by 2500 feet of ice melt solely from Antarctica.
Following weather patterns in the Western part of Antarctica, this region is at high risk for global weather impacts. More frequently warm and wet atmospheric rivers will further speed up the melting of the Antarctic surface. An atmospheric river is a flowing column of condensed water vapor in the atmosphere that produces heavy precipitation. This is concerning for the West Antarctic because of hydro-fracturing. Hydro-fracturing occurs when surface water flows downward and inside ice glaciers, refreezes, and then breaks up the glaciers into pieces and sections. Atmospheric rivers will cause these glaciers to break up and travel out to open sea where they will melt, causing a rise in sea level. Atmospheric rivers can run thousands of miles and have tremendous water capacity. On average, atmospheric rivers are roughly 1.8 miles deep and 250 to 375 miles wide. According to research, ice glacier melting contributes to low level clouds that are transferred by these atmospheric rivers. These clouds emit long-wave heat radiation due to greenhouse gases. On the other hand, these same clouds will also tend to linger, causing them to absorb heat on the surface and to repeat the cycle.
It is no surprise that polar ice caps will melt due to global warming, particularly in Western Antarctica. If we continue this global pattern, we will effectively see a rise in sea level as well as other cascading consequences due to our lack of attention to this crisis. Reducing our carbon footprint as well as irrigation and urbanization is a step in the right direction toward resolving this global crisis. However, we must act now and act with a sense of haste.