Recently, a study published by NASA scientists in the Journal of Glaciology made the surprising claim that Antarctica is gaining more ice than it has lost. The study, led by Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist, claimed that an increase in Antarctic snow accumulation that began 10,000 years ago is currently adding ice to the continent.
According to the new analysis of satellite data, this snowfall added 112 billion tons of ice each year from 1992 to 2001, but the rate slowed to 82 billion tons per year from 2003 and 2008. This ice is enough to outweigh the increased losses from Antarctica’s thinning glaciers, especially in eastern and central parts of the continent.
However, the analysis is unconvincing and contradictory. Here’s why you should be skeptical:
A: The most recent data used in that study is from 2008; ice loss on the west side of Antarctica has sped up in recent years. Zwally also warns:
“If the losses of the Antarctic Peninsula and parts of West Antarctica continue to increase at the same rate they’ve been increasing for the last two decades, the losses will catch up with the long-term gain in East Antarctica in 20 or 30 years — I don’t think there will be enough snowfall increase to offset these losses.”
Are the Antarctic’s ice sheets shrinking or growing? What the NASA report really means: https://t.co/yfNgZnS9Kp
— National Geographic (@NatGeo) November 3, 2015
B: The study says little about climate change as a whole. It basically argues that ice and snowfall gains on one side of the continent actually more than offset the ice losses we often hear about on the other side. Zwally also acknowledges:
“Parts of Antarctica are losing mass faster than before. But large parts have been gaining mass, and they’ve been doing that for a very long time. I know some of the climate deniers will jump on this, and say this means we don’t have to worry as much as some people have been making out. It should not take away from the concern about climate warming.”
— Al Gore (@algore) November 5, 2015
C: The findings conflict with more than a decade of research indicating that Antarctica is losing ice and that the loss has contributed to rising global sea levels. The IPCC, the climate change body of the United Nations, attributes a portion of sea level rise (estimated at roughly 3.22 millimeters per year by NASA itself) specifically to ice loss on the continent. Zwally states:
“The good news is that Antarctica is not currently contributing to sea level rise, but is taking 0.23 millimeters per year away. But this is also bad news. If the 0.27 millimeters per year of sea level rise attributed to Antarctica in the IPCC report is not really coming from Antarctica, there must be some other contribution to sea level rise that is not accounted for.”
If Antarctica is actually gaining ice, where is that 0.27 millimeters of annual rise coming from?
D: The new NASA study uses satellite data from NASA’s ICEsat (Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite) and the European Remote-sensing Satellite to derive its results, which are based on precision measurements of the elevation of the ice sheet and how that is changing over time.
However, this contradicts many other results, including those derived using a different NASA tool — the GRACE satellites, twin measurement devices that orbit the Earth and measure the changing mass of ice based on differential tugs of gravity on the spacecraft as they pass over it. According to the data taken by the Grace satellites, Antarctica is currently losing more than 130 billion tons of ice per year, and that number is increasing every year.
— Climate Reality (@ClimateReality) November 10, 2015
Disputes about the rate of Antarctic ice loss will probably continue. To help accurately measure changes in Antarctica, NASA is developing the successor to the ICESat mission, ICESat-2, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. The findings, nonetheless, do not mean that Antarctica and the world are not in trouble. The world really is warming up. We really are losing ice. The sea levels really are rising. We really are not yet alarmed.
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