Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

36 hours left in this Mid-Year Campaign. This is our hour of need.
If you value independent journalism, please support Common Dreams.

Join the small group of generous readers who donate, keeping Common Dreams free for millions of people each year. Without your help, we won’t survive.

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.

Just a few days left in our crucial Mid-Year Campaign and we might not make it without your help.
Who funds our independent journalism? Readers like you who believe in our mission: To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. No corporate advertisers. No billionaire founder. Our non-partisan, nonprofit media model has only one source of revenue: The people who read and value this work and our mission. That's it.
And the model is simple: If everyone just gives whatever amount they can afford and think is reasonable—$3, $9, $29, or more—we can continue. If not enough do, we go dark.

All the small gifts add up to something otherwise impossible. Please join us today. Donate to Common Dreams. This is crunch time. We need you now.

Naomi Klein: The US Is in the Midst of a 'Shock-and-Awe Judicial Coup'

"The rolling judicial coup coming from this court is by no means over," warned the author of "The Shock Doctrine."

Jake Johnson ·


Markey, Bowman Join Climate Coalition in Urging SCOTUS Expansion

"We cannot sit idly by," said Markey, "as extremists on the Supreme Court eviscerate the authorities that the government has had for decades to combat climate change and reduce pollution."

Brett Wilkins ·


Ocasio-Cortez Says US 'Witnessing a Judicial Coup in Process'

"It is our duty to check the Court's gross overreach of power in violating people's inalienable rights and seizing for itself the powers of Congress and the president."

Brett Wilkins ·


Critics Say Biden Drilling Bonanza 'Won't Lower Gas Prices' But 'Will Worsen Climate Crisis'

"President Biden's massive public lands giveaway in the face of utter climate catastrophe is just the latest sign that his climate commitments are mere rhetoric," said one campaigner.

Kenny Stancil ·


'Payoff for 40 Years of Dark Money': Supreme Court Delivers for Corporate America

"It was the conservative court's larger agenda to gut the regulatory state and decimate executive powers to protect Americans' health and safety," warned one expert.

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo