West Antarctica Warming 3 x Faster Than Average
As 2012 ends a new study provides evidence that Western Antarctica is warming ahead of forecasts. This has serious implications for the rate of sea level rise, particularly what is termed catastrophic sea level rise.The area in question is Western Antarctica. The recent study in a significant scientific journal, Nature Geoscience, documents that temperatures have risen 4.3 degrees F (2.4 C) over the last fifty years -- three times the global average. The web site, Responding To Climate Change (RTCC.com) has an easy-to-read interpretation of that peer-reviewed scientific article.
Those who have read my recent book, High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis, may recognize this region as the one really critical location that could cause catastrophic sea level rise, perhaps as much as ten feet (3 m) this century. (For those interested it is on page 58-60.)
It is particularly noteworthy as the warming of this area, including two specific glaciers, Pine Island and Thwaites, was forecast in a 1978 paper by pioneering glaciologist Dr. John Mercer. Recent measurements by sophisticated satellites and instruments on the ice sheet show that it is indeed melting very rapidly.
What is generally ignored or missed is that these causes of potential sea level rise are totally excluded from the various sea level forecasts. The "scientific consensus" forecasts for sea level rise this century range from a few feet to as much as six feet. What is rarely mentioned is that such forecasts only include factors for which there is a "high probability." Such factors include the melting of glaciers and the thermal expansion of seawater (as the ocean warms it gets a few inches higher). But those factors are tiny compared to the galloping melt rates in Greenland, and the potential catastrophic rise from Western Antarctica.
I firmly believe that the scientific community is being too conservative in their forecasts, or at least in how they explain their forecasts. As I describe in the book, higher sea levels are now inevitable. We must begin a new attitude towards the coasts globally. After a six thousand year period of stability sea level and the coastline are on the move, in a BIG way. The fact that our entire six thousand year civilzation evolved believing that the coastline moves little, has fooled us into a terrible vulnerability.
We can still slow sea level rise, but it is a very slow effect realted to warming average global temperatures over decades. We should do what we can. But regardless we need to prepare for sea level that will rise for centuries, moving the shoreline far inland.
Hurricane Sandy did demonstrate the potential for sea level rise and storm surge to combine in speciic locations for deadly impact. While it certainly made an impression, few have yet separated long term guaranteed sea level rise, from episodes of storm surge, and particular geographic features that can greatly worsen impacts. No doubt there will be more lessons in the years ahead.