Our (Melting) Frozen Planet

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I’ve been watching a lot of the Discovery Channel show “Frozen Planet.” Ripe with stunning cinematography, the program chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Arctic’s inhabitants (both animal and human) as they navigate the changing icy landscape. I often spend the majority of each episode yelling at my television set in an attempt to warn seals, walruses and penguins of approaching predators. I know it’s the cycle of life, but I can’t help but see them as plush, cuddly toys from the aquarium gift shop.

But these days, even the predators face serious threat as climate change wreaks havoc on their delicate eco-system. And recent research by climate scientists at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research reveals another “weak point in the Antarctic ice sheet” that could lead to an additional rise in the global sea level of 4.4 millimeters per year. Rising temperatures in the air above the Weddell Sea could lead to an "inflow of warmer waters" beneath the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, according to the study, which was published in the journal Nature. This would lead to water temperatures in the ice shelf cavity increasing by more than 2 degrees Celsius. 

Making an already grim situation look even grimmer, scientist Jürgen Determann said the melt rate for the Filchner-Ronne would likely rise from 5 meters per year to up to 50 meters per year.

Why is this surprising? Scientists know that global warming is taking a toll on the western part of Antarctica, particularly the Amundsen Sea. But the southeastern part was thought to be fairly stable until this recent discovery, according to the institute. “The Weddell Sea was not really on the screen because we all thought that unlike the Amundsen Sea its warm waters would not be able to reach the ice shelves,” said Dr. Hartmut Hellmer, an oceanographer at the institute who lead the study. “But we found a mechanism which drives warm water towards the coast with an enormous impact on the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in the coming decades.”

Now, this likely would not begin to happen until 2070, and it will take an additional 20 years after that for the temperature to increase to the predicted amount. But the discovery refutes what the scientists are calling a “widespread assumption” that ice shelves in the Weddell Sea are mostly impervious to climate change.

This news leaves me feeling a bit helpless and disheartened. But I’m also hopeful that in the next 50 years we may be able to reverse a portion of the damage we’ve done, so the parts of our planet that are frozen remain as such. If you ever need a reminder of why this is so important, you can tune into Discovery’s penguin cam. If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t know what will.

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