Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

An iceberg seen from 2,000 feet above the Amundsen Sea in West Antarctica. (Photo: NASA HQ/flickr/cc)

New Study Shows Antarctic Melting Approaching 'Unstoppable' Tipping Point

'What we call the eternal ice of Antarctica unfortunately turns out not to be eternal at all,' says lead author of new study

Deirdre Fulton

A new study published Monday warns that "unstoppable" melting in West Antarctica could make a three-meter increase in sea level "unavoidable."

According to researchers at Germany's Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, the vulnerable Amundsen Sea sector of West Antarctica "has most likely been destabilized." They point to recent studies indicating that this area of the ice continent is "the first element in the climate system about to tip."

"If the Amundsen Sea sector is destabilized, then the entire marine part of West Antarctica will be discharged into the ocean."
—Johannes Feldmann & Anders Levermann, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

If that is true, computer modeling suggests the consequences could be catastrophic, initiating a process "which is then unstoppable and goes on for thousands of years," said Johannes Feldmann, lead author of the study.

"The result of this study is an if–then statement," reads the paper, which appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "[I]f the Amundsen Sea sector is destabilized, then the entire marine part of West Antarctica will be discharged into the ocean."

It continues: "The currently observed retreat in West Antarctica hence might mark the beginning of a millennial period of self-sustained ice discharge from West Antarctica and require long-term global adaptation of coastal protection, such as the building or rebuilding or raising of dykes, the construction of seawalls, or the realization of land fills in the hinterland."

In a statement, Feldmann put it starkly: "What we call the eternal ice of Antarctica unfortunately turns out not to be eternal at all. Once the ice masses get perturbed, which is what is happening today, they respond in a non-linear way: there is a relatively sudden breakdown of stability after a long period during which little change can be found."

Responding to the findings, Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol in the UK who was not involved in the research, acknowledged that "how quickly we reach this point of no return, and how rapidly it proceeds," are questions still to be answered.

"But what is clear," he told the Washington Post, "is that the next few decades will determine whether the [West Antarctic ice sheet] is just endangered or on its path to extinction."

Study co-author and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sea-level expert Anders Levermann noted that if swift carbon reductions are not implemented, "further greenhouse-gas emission will heighten the risk of an ice collapse in West Antarctica and more unstoppable sea-level rise." Otherwise, he warned, rising oceans could "destroy our future heritage by consuming the cities we live in."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

... We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

AOC, Joyce Introduce Bipartisan Bill for 'Immediate Relief' From Cannabis Convictions

"Goes to show that lawmakers don't have to agree on everything to find common ground on solutions to the challenges facing everyday Americans."

Brett Wilkins ·


Green Groups Demand Answers About 'Flimsy' and Buried Biden Drilling Report

"Public records released as a result of this request will shine light on the dangerous chasm separating Biden's climate promises from his refusal to phase out the use of our public lands and waters for oil and gas extraction."

Jessica Corbett ·


'Protest Works': Cheers as Shell Signals Pullout of Cambo Oil Field Project

"We have to see the end of North Sea projects as well as all new fossil fuel extraction: There is no future in them."

Julia Conley ·


Pentagon Blasted for 'Unacceptable Failure' to Reckon With Civilian Casualties

"For too long, the United States has failed to live up to its legal and moral commitments to the protection of civilians, as well as its own stated policies. This needs to change."

Brett Wilkins ·


Groups Say Congress Should Reject Biden's Harmful Sentencing Proposal on Fentanyl-Related Drugs

"The facts don't support the argument that a harsh law enforcement approach, such as permanent classwide scheduling of fentanyl-related substances, will curb drug distribution, sale, and use."

Andrea Germanos ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo