In one more piece of evidence that the Earth's climate is warming rapidly,
a new study published Friday in Science
magazine has found that Alaska's glaciers are melting more quickly than previously
The resulting meltwater is also contributing much more to the rise in sea
level than previous estimates, according to the study by a team of University
of Alaska researchers in Fairbanks, which also found that both trends are accelerating.
"The rate of thinning has doubled in the past five years, compared to the
40 years before," said Anthony Arendt, the study's main author.
As a result, the Alaskan contribution to sea-level rise has also doubled,
to about 0.27 mms a year during the past decade, or about twice the amount assumed
by an international panel of scientists that last year predicted sea level would
rise up to 11 centimeters (about four inches) by the end of this century due to
Jason Bausher skies across the Kahiltna Glacier in Alaska with Mount McKinley
in the background. An estimated 37 cubic miles of ice are disappearing annually
from Alaskan glaciers, turning some imposing ice mountains into minor hills and
adding to the steady rise in global sea level, a study shows. (AP Photo/Al Grillo,
"It's a big deal if those rates have been underestimated," said Tom Janetos,
an expert at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment. "If
these results are correct, the rate of sea-level rise has probably been underestimated
in all international assessments."
More than 100 million people live on land within one meter of sea level, and
storm surges can devastate coral reefs and low-lying islands and coastlines around
"Although some degree of sea-level rise is anticipated in the coming decades,
the greater the rise and the faster it occurs, the greater the impact will be
on human population," according to Benjamin Preston, a researcher at the Washington
D.C.-based Pew Center on Global Climate Change.
Despite their relatively small land mass--about 13 percent of the world's
total mountain glacier area--Alaska's glaciers contribute about half of all sea
rise caused by glacial melt and about twice as much as the amount of water lost
from the entire Greenland Ice Sheet, according to the study.
A second study published in Science Friday will also add to concerns
about the impact on oceans of faster ice melt. Using records compiled over the
last 40 years, researchers at Columbia University found a sharp decline in the
salinity of waters in the Ross Sea near Antarctica, as well as warmer air and
water temperatures in the area.
The warmer atmosphere appears to have caused more rain and snowfall, less
sea ice, and faster melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet, according to the
study. Previously, low salinity found in masses of seawater flowing from the Antarctic
to the South Pacific was attributed to more precipitation, but the new study confirms
that increased melting of the ice cap itself is also a major factor.
Declining salinity could affect major ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream
which warms the waters and climate of the North Atlantic region, according to
oceanographers. One increasingly prominent theory suggests that a significant
flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic could actually reverse the Gulf Stream,
as it has in the past, causing an abrupt plunge in water and air temperatures
in northeastern North America and northwestern Europe.
"If scientists have underestimated the amount of fresh water likely to enter
the oceans in coming decades, they may have also underestimated the risk of such
a phenomenon occurring," said Preston.
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