On February 21st, Antarctica ice levels hit a record low. It is normal for the ice to recede in the summer, which is the current season for the region, but it has been hitting record lows for the past two years. This year, the amount of ice has shrunk to 1.79 million square kilometers, or 691,000 square miles, which is about 52,000 square miles lower than in 2022. Ice levels are also expected to continue to dip even lower than this during the season.
It was not hard to predict that ice levels would hit another record low, as scientists were expecting this in January. “By the end of January we could tell it was only a matter of time,” says Dr. Will Hobbs, an Antarctic sea ice expert at the University of Tasmania with the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership. “We are seeing less ice everywhere. It’s a circumpolar event.”
Scientists have been able to gather this information for 44 years through satellites that show how much ice is floating on the ocean around Antarctica’s 18,000 km coastline. This is how we have been able to track the size of glaciers in Antarctica over the past four decades. The satellite's results show that there has never been less ice around the continent than there was a few weeks ago.
Even with this prominent evidence of climate change, the Antarctic’s sea ice is harder to correlate to climate change than the Arctic. The Arctic’s rate of sea ice loss has followed a fairly constant decline as climate change accelerates, while Antarctic sea ice has swung up and down, along with the seasons. These swings can make it hard to understand how the continent and its surrounding ocean are responding to global heating.
This correlation difficulty regarding Antarctica's glaciers and climate change has to do with the topography of the region. While the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents, Antarctica is a continent surrounded by the ocean, allowing its sea ice to grow outward unconstricted by land. Ice and glaciers in the Antarctic tend to be thinner than Arctic ice, with larger highs in the winter and steeper declines in the summer.
One of Antarctica’s glaciers taking a hit by the new record low is the Thwaites Glacier, also known as the “Doomsday Glacier.” Scientists gave it this nickname because its collapse could cause the sea level to rise significantly. The Thwaites Glacier’s size is comparable to Florida and is located in West Antarctica. An ice shelf holds it in place and acts as a cork keeping the glacier from affecting sea level rise. But as the ocean warms, this ice shelf becomes increasingly more vulnerable.
While the ice shelf seems to be melting slower than scientists previously thought, deep cracks and formations resembling a “staircase” in the ice are causing the glacier to melt much faster. David Rounce, a glaciologist at Carnegie Mellon University, says research can help make more accurate projections about sea level rise, which can be fed into efforts to mitigate climate change and protect coastal communities. Rounce hopes that the news of Antarctica reaching a record low will move others to take climate change more seriously. “Despite it being so remote, the consequences of what happens on Thwaites will impact everybody,” Davis said.
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