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Moderate warming could melt Antarctica's 'sleeping giant' ice sheet

"Future ice loss seems inevitable if we fail to reduce carbon emissions," researcher David Wilson said.

By Brooks Hays
Moderate warming could melt Antarctica's 'sleeping giant' ice sheet
Moderate, sustained warming could melt the East Antarctica Ice Sheet, triggering significant sea level rise. Photo by UPI/NASA | License Photo

Sept. 19 (UPI) -- Warming of just 2 degrees Celsius, sustained over two millennia, would be enough to melt the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, according to new research.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the continent's "sleeping giant," the largest ice sheet on Earth. Most research has focused on the melting and potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, but significant EAIS melting could also trigger a dramatic rise in sea level.

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The best way to understand how Antarctica's ice sheets will respond to warming in the future is to look at how they reacted to warming in the past. As ice sheets move across land, glacial meltwater carries the eroded sediment to the ocean. The deposits form a record of an ice sheet's advance and retreat across time.

"Studying ice sheet behavior in the geological past can inform us about future changes," David Wilson, glaciologist at Imperial College, said in a news release. "By building a picture of how the ice sheet has grown and shrunk as temperatures have fluctuated, we can predict the sleeping giant's response to future warming."

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New analysis of sediment cores collected from the Wilkes Subglacial Basin allowed scientists to estimate the movement of EAIS during an interglacial period 450,000 years ago, when temperatures at the South Pole were approximately 2 degrees warmer.

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The ancient interglacial period also featured significantly higher sea levels, and the latest findings -- published Wednesday in the journal Nature -- suggest the melting of the EAIS was to blame.

"We learned that even modest warming of just two degrees, if sustained for a couple of thousand years, could melt the sleeping giant in some low-lying areas," Wilson said. "With current global temperatures already one degree higher than during pre-industrial times, future ice loss seems inevitable if we fail to reduce carbon emissions."

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