West Antarctic Ice Sheet meltdown avoidable 'by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions' - GNS Science study

  • 23/04/2024

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet could stop melting if the world slashes carbon emissions, new research from GNS Science and Victoria University of Wellington says.  

Published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, the study found even though the region was vulnerable, "we're not there yet", said lead author Dan Lowry.  

"Our modelling has helped us understand what caused changes in the past; we know that by mitigating greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement target, it is possible to limit... ocean warming to levels that won't cause collapse of the ice sheet," said Lowry, a climate modeller from GNS science. "This is a topic that the scientific community has been trying to figure out for several years; obtaining these results is like finding that missing piece in the puzzle of what makes ice sheets tick."  

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet's collapse was identified as one of multiple "tipping points" at risk of happening imminently in a report tabled at the COP23 climate summit in the UAE last year. 

Additionally, the British Antarctic Survey said last year it would continue melting no matter what happened with the world's carbon emissions.   

GNS Science's research ran computer model simulations to examine how the Earth's crust and ocean changes impacted the ice sheet. 

The study suggested while the speed of the ice sheet's melting did depend on sea temperatures, "the rate of crustal response also impacts how sensitive the ice sheet is to the ocean".  

Lowry said the results showed "it is still possible to prevent the retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the Siple Coast region".  

He noted the findings came about through incorporating "a wider range of processes than previous models, for example changes in sea level that occur near the ice sheet as it melts, due to the ice sheet's gravitational pull".  

"When we project future ice sheet response, we have to grapple with many uncertainties about which processes drive ice sheet behaviour. Our study sought to unravel what happened to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in this region in the past... to better predict what will happen in the future."