Warning About Rising Sea Levels Will Impact Washington, Oregon

By Tom Bacon

A sobering warning from noted glaciologists at the University of Washington. The enormous ice sheet covering much of the Antarctic is beginning to collapse, a process which will release enough water to raise the world's ocean levels by several feet.

Doctors Ian Joughin and Benjamin Smith, both earth scientists in the UW Applied Physics Laboratory, said the question is no longer "if" collapse of the ice sheet will happen because of global warming, but "when."

Their studies relied on sensitive measuring equipment and computer modeling on one of Antarctic's key ice sheets, the Thwaites Glacier in West Antarctica. Joughin found that early stage collapse has begun.

He said that previous studies could not tell scientists whether thinning ice might slow down or stop. But he said  the new studies clearly point to thinning accelerating over time. Once the rapid collapse of the Thwaites Glacier begins, it'll likely destabilize all of West Antarctica.

By rapid collapse, he doesn't mean it'll happen in the next few months or years. IT could take 200 years at worst, or nearly a millennium at best. But the retreat of the ice, as Joughin put it - will have major consequences for sea level rise worldwide. Sea levels would rise by at least 4 feet, if the glaciers Joughin and his team studied all collapse, or as much as 15 feet if other parts of the vast ice sheet erode.

Joughin said it's clear that melt rates will speed up in the future, not slow down. The UW team's study will be published in in the journal "Science" this week.
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