Polar ice caps: becoming more unstable due to global warming and extreme events

Understanding the variability of the Antarctic and Arctic ice caps is essential for determining future sea level rise projections. A research group of 29 international experts, including the OGS, has mapped the state of knowledge on the variability of the polar ice caps and concluded that a better understanding of the sensitivity of the ice caps to past and future climate change is needed to predict sea level rise.

The study, which was coordinated by the University of Lincoln in the UK, was published in the journal Nature Reviews Earth & Environment. It examined palaeoclimate archives, current observations and numerical model simulations and defined research priorities for the study of ice cap variability. Detailed analysis of ice cap variability is essential to reduce uncertainties in projections of global sea level rise in the past and in the future.

Ice sheet mass loss is not a simple, uniform response to global warming, but is punctuated by short extreme events (such as the collapse of the Conger Ice Shelf in Antarctica in 2022) that last only a few days but can trigger significant mass loss. Short events are sometimes associated with sudden heat waves. One example of this was the melting of entire sectors of the Greenland ice sheet in July 2023.

The study emphasises the need to monitor both short- and long-term changes in ice sheets to reduce uncertainties in future sea level rise projections. The new publication also emphasises that short-term climate variability could have an amplifying effect, meaning that the ice sheets are more sensitive to climate change than previously thought.

The research was funded by the Climate and Cryosphere Project of the World Climate Research Programme, the International Arctic Science Committee and the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

Link to the study: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-023-00509-7