Roberto Candia/AP

Potential Rise in Sea Level May Be Worse Than Predicted, But Should We Worry?

February 09, 2009 07:32 AM
by Cara McDonough
A new study shows that an increase in the sea level resulting from arctic melting may be several feet higher than once predicted, putting many coastal areas completely underwater.

Cities Underwater

New research from the University of Toronto and Oregon State University shows that if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses and melts due to global warming, the sea level increase could be up to 21 feet in some places, putting many coastal locations, including Washington, D.C., and much of Southern Florida, underwater.

Jerry X. Mitrovica, director of the Earth System Evolution Program at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and one of the authors of the study, says there is particular concern among scientists about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet due to the fact that it is “fringed by ice shelves which act to stabilize the ice sheet … if they break up, the ice sheet will have a lot less impediment to collapse,” reports ScienceDaily.

The study, which was featured in the most recent issue of the journal Science, states that there is some debate as to how much of the ice would disappear if the Ice Sheet collapsed, but the new data clearly indicates that the sea level rise would be much higher than previously estimated—as much as 25 percent more.

Is it time to panic? Maybe not, said study author Peter U. Clark, a geosciences professor at Oregon State: “It may not happen for hundreds of years, and even then it may not melt in its entirety.”

Still, he said, the new, higher sea level predictions should be taken to heart. Some U.S. coastal states, such as California, are doing just that by developing “adaptation” plans to deal with the effects of climate change, the Los Angeles Times reports. The University of California at Berkeley recently released a study saying that the state has about $2.5 trillion in real estate that could be damaged by climate change. 

The new paper also reports that sea levels would behave differently on different parts of the planet; the oceans around Antarctica would, in fact, retract, while in the Northern Hemisphere, levels would rise more than expected.

Other recent data suggests that there may be nothing anyone can do to stop the potential catastrophe. A study released in January by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that “climate change is ‘largely irreversible’ for the next 1,000 years even if carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions could be abruptly halted.”

While some scientists were jarred by the new study, others feel that news about global warming is overblown and receiving far too much attention. Some call manmade global warming a hoax.

Background: Arctic ice and global warming in Antarctica

The new sea level study comes only a few months after Arctic sea ice was at its second lowest level on record. In September, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center announced that sea ice cover had fallen to 4.52 million square km (1.74 million square miles).

Scientists became concerned that the shrinking of sea ice, which has a cooling effect on the planet, would mean a warmer Arctic, which in turn could lead to even more melting. Some even worried that the region could be completely ice-free in the near future.

A study released in January showed that the southernmost point on the Earth is feeling the effects of global warming, too. New satellite data has shown that on average, Antarctica has warmed by 0.5 degrees Celsius between 1957 and 2006, and that the planet as a whole has warmed 0.6 degrees Celsius in 50 years.

The research, published in the journal Nature, said that greenhouse gasses were contributing to the situation. The news came as a surprise since, over the years, many researchers have believed that the Antarctic Peninsula was the only region where there was no proof of global warming.

Reference: The West Antarctic Ice Sheet


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines